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lifeway-campus-bookstoreWhen I was in seminary, I had an insatiable desire to read and learn and read some more. It was difficult to find time to read.

But even more difficult than finding time to read was finding money to buy books! It took all the spare cash I had to buy the books required for school. Looking at the new books at the seminary’s LifeWay, I sometimes thought to myself: If someone were willing to donate to me all of the books I really want to read, I’d write a 5-page review of each one – just to show them their money didn’t go to waste!

In some ways, that wish has come true. I now receive new books from publishers. The books that come from publishers then turn into lots of book reviews on the blog. But I still remember the feeling that I’m sure many readers of this blog have: you want to read more, but you can’t afford the books. I’ve been there. Yes, cost can be prohibitive.

Here are a few suggestions for how to be a reader when you can’t afford books:

1. Read good book reviews.

There is nothing more frustrating then spending your precious few dollars on a book that winds up being a disappointment. The more book reviews you read, the better you will understand which books are worth picking up.

Book reviews also give you information about the theological conversations taking place in the book world. Check out Discerning Reader. Or the book reviews in the back of Theology Journals. Most of them are now online. TGC also reviews books. As does Christianity Today. Look at the reviews from scholars regarding new releases. Read author-interviews and book excerpts so you can find out “in a nutshell” what different authors are trying to say. When you don’t have the time or money to read a book, find a book review instead.

2. Read your favorite books again.

That’s right. Take the books you already have and give them a second go. Not all of them, of course. But the good ones… the ones you remember well.

Reading the same book twice is never the same experience. I remember reading a book when it first came out and liking it a lot. Then, I remember reading it again a couple of years later and being horrified at the lack of discernment I’d had the first time.

Some books that you love the first time will leave you dry the second time. Other books that seemed too deep or uninviting the first time may be just what you need the second time. So be a good steward of the books you already have. Read them again!

3. Beg, steal and borrow. (Actually, just beg and borrow.)

Borrow books from family and friends. I was home for a few days around Thanksgiving and saw that my dad had just finished Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success. I took it home and read it in a few hours.

My dad is a history lover too. So he is my resource for biographies and and books about American history. I don’t need to buy a lot of books in that field. Dad always finds really interesting titles and then passes them along to me.

Theology-lovers: ask your pastor what he is reading. See what he recommends. Find friends and family that read and then rely on them to “feed” you books!

The best thing about borrowing? You can ask the person if the book is worth your time and attention. So you not only get to borrow books – you get a screener this way too!

One caveat: make sure you return books you borrow. If you don’t, you won’t be borrowing many more.

4. Go to the library.

Sounds crazy, I know. But you can find good titles (generally secular) at the library. If you have a seminary in town or a theological institution, get a library card and enjoy the books that are available.

5. Get used books cheap.

If you find some books you would like to buy, try to find them on Ebay or Amazon Marketplace. Used books are just as good as new books (for me anyway). Bestsellers from two or three years ago are often sold at low prices online. You might have to spend a little time searching, but you will make up the difference in money. And sometimes you have more time than money!

6. Find classic books online.

GoogleBooks is incredible. There is no excuse for us today to not read the classics of Christian history. More and more books are being scanned and entered into Google’s database. The amount of knowledge available at the click of a mouse is simply breathtaking. There are thousands of classic works of literature available for free on Kindle. Spend some time sorting through the books that have stood the test of time. And then enjoy the insights of those who now form the great cloud of witnesses cheering us on in the race.

adapted from a post first published in March 2009

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13 thoughts on “Reading When You Can't Afford Books”

  1. Stephen Newell says:

    One thing you can do with your family is when you buy books, buy with someone else in mind. My sister and I do this and we regularly exchange whole boxes of fiction. We both like the same sort of stories, so it’s easy to pick out something and hand it over after reading. Saves you shelf space too since those books will be gone after a while!

  2. jeremy says:

    I feel the pain! There are so many great, Christ-centered books to read and so little time. . . and so little money!

  3. Angie Burnham says:

    We are fortunate to have a Christian ministry for the homeless in town. They have a bargain center where they take donations of everything, including books, then sell them if the ministry itself cannot use them for people in recovery programs. I’ve picked up some classics from Augustine, RC Sproul, John MacArthur, John Piper, CS Lewis, etc. The best part is not only are the proceeds going to feed the hungry, but the paperbacks are only 50 cents and hardbacks are one dollar. Then, when I’m done reading, I donate them back! Win win :o)

  4. Lazo says:

    Read e-books! Sometimes you can get free ones, or incredibly cheap ones if you don’t mind parting with paper. Twitter, I get notified of a lot of free theological e-books by @gospelebooks

  5. Greg Gibson says:

    7. Search inside new books online before buying them.

    Use Google Books and Amazon’s Search Inside This Book. If they restrict you from searching as many pages as you’d like, delete your cookies, then try searching again.

    Many times this has saved me from buying disappointing books. And sometimes you can get a book’s main points for free.

    And of course, remember Jim Eliff’s recent blog, “Book Hoarding.”

  6. Carrie Saxton says:

    If you haven’t checked out, that is another good one. They have a decent selection of used Christian books although it might take you a while to get the one you want. I do miss having access to a good library system.

  7. 4b. Use inter-library loan! Most libraries, if they don’t have a book, are still able to get you the book for you to read.

  8. Taylor says:

    brilliant. This is exactly why I bought a kindle. The initial fee hurt a bit, but now I have over 100 books well worth reading, and I’ve only payed for one of them. (although the count will hit two when my kindle finally gets to Korea and I add Spiritual Depression by Lloyd-Jones to the list.

    Ebooks also alleviate the book hoarding issue addressed in one of your links last week.

  9. Dave says:

    Other than the classics as suggested in #6, since getting an ebook reader – a Kobo Touch which uses epub format like virtually all non-Kindle readers – I’ve been fairly disappointed by the pricing and availability of titles in many cases.

    I’ve hit a number of instances in which prices for the ebook version is more expensive than the brand-new dead tree version let alone a used book.

    I’ve done a lot of business with international book sellers (as a Canadian), and I’m finding a lot less ebook stores willing to sell ebooks to a Canadian than I’d hoped. (Silly geographical licensing restrictions).

    These sorts of issues have me have-reverting to buying dead tree versions rather ebooks, though I do like my ereader.

  10. A Catholic Lisa says:

    I have a Kobo and am disappointed in their selection of free and and not free Christian ebooks. If you have to spend money on an eReader, I recommend the Kindle. It may not be as cheap, but the selection is far greater and the prices are more reasonable.

  11. Dave says:

    One of the problems with Kobo is that their store’s search functionality is simply terrible at finding the correct titles. Rather than searching through their site directly, I search their site through Google (simply add “” to your Google query).

    Googling around Kindle seems to have <50% of the reader market, with most other offering ePUBs. Thus I'm surprised that there isn't better pricing on these ePUBs.

    e.g. If I skip the middleman for ebooks and go directly to Crossway Books' web store, why is it that ordering directly from the publisher is significantly more expensive than through Amazon? To pick as an example, "Feelings and Faith" (Borgman) is $2.99US at Amazon, and $9.99US at Crossway's website.

  12. mary foreman says:

    I also use paperbackswap to trade out books that I am not so keen on keeping and then to pick out books on my wish list for free.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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