A friend recently asked me if I had a book handy that they could either borrow or if I could at least help them out with a quote from a portion of it for their research. I don’t have that particular book in my collection, but I did find the portion they were asking about online, free to read any time they liked. This means I got to help out, if in a roundabout way.
The following are three techniques I’ve used to do a little free reading from time to time. None of these ideas are great for reading a book from cover to cover. In fact, none of them let you do that at all. However, if you need a snippet here or a factoid there… if you’re doing a little research and want to double-check a quote… if you lent your book to a friend and they never returned it and now you’ve got to figure out how you’re going to make sure you cite that source, these three ideas are for you.
Before we dive in, one quick note: I believe in purchasing books so by all means, buy books. Think of these three ideas more as temporary problem-solvers than permanent solutions. The most permanent – and supportive to your favorite author – solution is to buy the book. Make it so!
Okay, here are three ways to read (part of) a book online for free…
1. Most books on Amazon have a “Look Inside” feature.
Hard to believe Amazon started as an online bookseller, but it’s true. My first Amazon purchase was a book – this David Sedaris book purchased all the way back in 2000 – and books are probably what I’ve purchased there the most, honestly. One of my favorite things about shopping for books at Amazon is their “Look Inside” feature where you can read some of the content. Typically, the table of contents is available and sometimes it’s even tappable to jump to a section.
Let’s say you’ve finally heard of the amazingness that is Phoebe Robinson and you want to check out part of her latest and greatest book, Everything’s Trash, but That’s Okay. When you tap/click to her book’s page on Amazon, you’ll see “Look Inside” over the cover:
From there, tap in to see the front matter, table of contents, first pages, and a fun option, “Surprise me!” that takes you to a random part of the book. Usually, the preview is the beginning of the book, FYI.
It even works for many textbooks. Look, I never took calculus, but I know where I could look at a major portion of a textbook about it for free…
There’s a search bar to look for a particular passage and even if that part of the book isn’t in the preview, you can see a preview of that sentence. When would you need that? Well, have you ever had a time you thought you knew a quote was from a book but don’t have the book handy? Find the title, search in “Look Inside,” and see if you’re remembering correctly.
For my friend, they were doing some sermon research and can’t find a copy of a particular research book. Through the “Look Inside” feature, I found their book and the “Look Inside” feature previews most of what they were hoping to find as they crafted their sermon. Turns out I got to be helpful, after all, by imparting knowledge rather than lending a book.
The downside, of course, is it’s not the whole book. You shouldn’t expect it to be, of course, but for every book you find where it feels like the whole title is practically there, be ready for many books to be scant on what content is available to you. I also find this feature much easier to navigate on the desktop app than in a mobile device, but you may have a different experience than me.
2. Try the Amazon Kindle app “Free Sample” feature.
Amazon wants you to buy into the Kindle infrastructure (I have, I dig it, so there’s that) and they’re always looking for ways to get their Kindle app into your hands. That’s why most books sold as electronic Kindle books have the option for a “free sample” that can be sent to your Kindle device of choice.
That means if you have a Kindle Paperwhite, you can have it sent there. Or if you have the Kindle app on your iPhone or a tablet, you can have it sent there. The flexibility of where the sample goes is helpful and as far as I can tell, the sample stays in your library and can be downloaded to any of your devices – the same as a purchased title.
The one downside is not all Kindle books have a sample option and when they do, not all sample sizes are equal. Some will be several pages while others will only be the opening. They often seem even shorter than the “Look Inside” feature, at least in my experience. For example, with my friend’s book, I found what she was looking for in the “Look Inside” option but not the Kindle “free sample” option. Still, a good way to take a look at the book on your e-reader.
3. Use the search engine power of Google Books.
Search Google Books and you’ll get samples from thousands of titles. You can search for a title, tap into it, then do a word search and find the exact quote you’re looking for thanks to the power of the Google search engine. While they have many popular books available, I’ve found this can be a tremendous resource for academic or older works, as well. They even have an advanced book search with several filters available for more nuanced search results. It’s similar to an online library database, the kind most students have access to within their field, only it’s for their catalog.
In the case of my friend’s book, I found the title and the section she was looking for, thankfully. It was a little more tricky to navigate the in-text links than through Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature, though. I can’t recall if that’s typical or if that’s just my experience with this one title.
There are two downsides with Google Books. First, some books appear to just be scans and not always the best visual quality. At least they’re still searchable, though. And second, while the two Amazon preview outlets make it more clear where they start and end, Google Books previews are a little more random and that can be frustrating. It tells you this upfront: “This is a preview. The total pages displayed will be limited.” From there, you can scroll through any given book and be amazed at how much you can see in one section, only to see that “pages 40 to 323 are not a part of this preview.” Still, in my experience you get more preview material in general than the Amazon routes, but if you’re counting on the beginning or a specific page, you may be out of luck.
These are my three ideas for reading online for free, or at least a little bit. I hope it’s helpful for you as you do your next bit of research, exegesis, or simply to see if the next book you want to purchase is right for you. Keep reading, friends, and thanks for reading here!
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