How to Read Books for Free During the Pandemic

Getting outside and reading are two essential activities during the pandemic. This woman in New York City combines them on a pretty day during the pandemic. Cindy Ord/Getty Images

Libraries are closed. But during the coronavirus pandemic, we all need to get lost in a good book now more than ever. Fortunately, there are ways you can get your literary fix for free even when you can't leave the house.

Your local library

Even though the physical buildings are closed, libraries are still letting patrons borrow e-books or audiobooks. You can download them onto your phone or e-reader and borrow them for a few weeks, just like you would a physical book. Because libraries have limited copies of digital books, you likely will have to get on a waiting list for popular titles. Log on to your local library system website for more information. You'll need a library card, but many systems will let you sign up for one online if you don't already have one.

Free online libraries for older books

It's easier to find older books that are no longer under copyright. Project Gutenberg has a library of more than 60,000 free e-books. Most are older, literary works published before 1924. You can also search Google Books, which includes both excerpts and entire books online. To find entire books, make sure to choose "full view only" in the advanced search option. Then select "read" to download the book you want.

The National Emergency Library

The Internet Archive announced the creation of a National Emergency Library, which suspended waitlists for the 1.4 million books in the nonprofit's lending library. "The library system, because of our national emergency, is coming to aid those that are forced to learn at home," said Brewster Kahle, digital librarian of the Internet Archive, in a statement. "This was our dream for the original Internet coming to life: the Library at everyone's fingertips." The suspension will last through the end of June ("or the end of the US national emergency, whichever is later").

There is some controversy surrounding the National Emergency Library, however. Many writers and publishers have critiqued the move, saying the website shares copies without their permission, reports NPR. The Internet Archive issued a lengthy response, defending the decision.

Kindle books

There are plenty of titles available for your Kindle, even older models. Mike Norton [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

Of course you can continue to purchase traditional paper books from online vendors during the pandemic (although delivery times might take longer for non-essential items). You can also pay for digital copies of books. But a search for "free Kindle books" on Amazon came up with more than 100,000 results. Many of the books have thousands of reviews, so you can research before you read. You can also sort by mysteries, suspense, contemporary fiction, romance, nonfiction and other categories. You don't have to have a Kindle or other e-reader to download these books. You can use the Kindle app for your phone, tablet or computer.

Nook books

If you use a Nook e-reader, you can find free books online too. A search for free Nook books found more than 80,000 results including fiction, literature, nature and romance. You can also get the first book in a series to see if you want to read more.

Apple Books

Apple Books offers free classics, mysteries, romances and kids' books. There are also free "first in a series" books so you can try out an author before you buy. Download to your phone or iPad.

Sharing books

Little Free Library
Do you have a Little Free Library in your neighborhood? You'd probably know if you explored on foot or bike. (Photo: Susilyn/Shutterstock)

You might notice on NextDoor or Facebook groups there are pleas from word-starved neighbors to share books. People offer to leave them on their porches after promising to spray them with Lysol or wipe them down with Clorox wipes. There are varying studies about how long coronaviruses can live on different surfaces. Researchers say you are much more likely to catch the infection through the air than through a surface. But to be safe, if you borrow a book, don't touch it for several days before reading it. Wash your hands well each time you stop reading it and keep your hands away from your face.

Another way to share books is to do it virtually. If you have a Kindle or Nook, both allow you to loan copies of e-books you own with friends. Then, once you've all read the same book, you can have a virtual book club via Zoom or Skype.