Get Started Reading Books and Articles on the Cheap

'The Librarian'Tired of paying too much for textbooks, books, and articles? Tired of paying anything at all? With a little bit of effort, you can reduce the price of an otherwise expensive book to nothing — or almost nothing.

In this tutorial:

Reading Legally & Honestly. Before you make that one-click purchase at, consider reading the same book for free, with these completely legal and honest tricks.

  1. Download Public Domain Books At books.googlecom. Before you actually purchase something by Kant, browse over 700 free books by Kant (in various languages and translations). Just make sure you select “Full View” in the dropdown menu, and Google returns only books that are old enough to have been released to the public domain. This trick is very effective, as long as the author you want is already dead.
  2. Download Free Articles from Preprint Servers. Read the almost-ready-for-print version, without paying for it! Physics and mathematics: Philosophy of Science:
  3. Download Free Articles from the Author’s Homepage. Did you know that Jeremy Butterfield has dozens of his most recent papers posted on his website? Or that John Norton has written a free introduction to Einstein’s theories? You can always google an author that you’re interested in. Or, cut to the chase and check out this meticulous list of philosophers with online papers, compiled by David Chalmers.
  4. Go to the Library. The what? Yes, the library. It’s still the easiest way to get free books to read. Some libraries will even send books to you in the mail for free. Here’s how to find a public library in your area. Or, visit your local University’s library for an even grander selection.
  5. Buy very, very cheap books. Ok, so this one’s almost free. There are hundreds of books selling at less than 1 cent on Amazon. They’re not all worth a penny, but there are some real jewels among the noise, which you can get for only the price of shipping. To find them, try browsing by subject, and then selecting “Sort by Price: Low to High.”

Reading With Questionable Scruples. Disclaimer: these tricks are intended for legal use and for informational purposes only. Here are more ways to read on the cheap, which may require questionable scruples.

  1. Scan Books. With a little practice and a decent scanner, you can scan a 500-page textbook into PDF form in about 45 minutes. It’s a good idea to work out a system in which you scan/flip/scan/flip… as quickly as possible.

    How do you get the book in the first place? Use any of the free methods mentioned above — the library, for example. Don’t have access to a scanner? Many university libraries and offices have public scanners. You can also buy a scanner for less than 20</a> on Amazon.</li> <li> <a href=""><img src="" border="0" alt=""></a><em>Take Digital Photos of Books</em>. If you don't have access to a scanner, you may have access to a digital camera. If you're creative, you can jimmy-rig a digital camera to work even more effectively than a scanner in copying books. They're also great for use in libraries, archives, and bookstores in which you aren't allowed to just take books off the premises.</li> <li> <em>Expand "Limited Preview" Books on Google and Amazon.</em> By entering clever search strings into the "Search this book" field on Amazon/Google, you can often read much more than the limited preview normally allows. If the next page is not available to read, but you can anticipate a keyword that will appear on that page, then searching for it will often make it available. This works best if you only want to read a single passage or a chapter, and have a little luck on your side.</li>  </ol> <b><a name="joy"></a>The Joy of Making Cheap Books.</b> Still, there's nothing like having a real, live book in your hands to flip through. So it isn't ideal that many of these tricks will get you a PDF of a book or article, and not the book/article itself. But if you're willing to pay a little extra, this problem has a fairly easy fix: just print and bind books yourself.Many offices and universities will print will give you a free printing quota, or at least a great price on printing. You can also print at home. A ream of 500 sheets costs a few dollars, ink costs a few dollars per book, and spiral binding costs 4-5 dollars at FedEx or the UPS store. The total will be around15 per book — which is still much less than an original (even used!) textbook.

    Finally, if you’re too lazy to do all this yourself, you can just have the whole job done at FedEx or the UPS Store. Tell them what you want printed, and ask for a spiral binding job. The price should still be less than $20 per textbook.

    Happy reading!

    2 thoughts on “Get Started Reading Books and Articles on the Cheap

    1. Bryan

      Update: Rob Helpy-Chalk has posted a lovely collection of open access logic texts on his blog. Open access textbooks are another excellent (and scrupulous) way to read for free.