“Best Bargain” could just lead to an account of book-buying as written by a stock-market dealer. Those £5 pamphlets by J. H. Prynne that now sell for £50 or £100: bargains! (Etc.) But I’m not selling them, so that’s not really the point.
I’d prefer to take my measure as the price:pleasure ratio, but even that becomes complicated. When in 1992 I bought a second-hand copy of Michael Roberts’s Collected Poems (1958) for £30 from Ulysses in Bloomsbury, I’d never previously ventured into an antiquarian bookseller or spent quite so much on a second-hand book; but I was writing a chapter on Roberts in my thesis, and, in the absence of a loanable copy in Oxford, it was necessary and enormously helpful. A bargain at the price, but in this case it’s as much a measure of the efficiency it brought to my research as it is of the pleasure of Roberts’s poems. In a similar vein I might mention a secondhand copy of A. S. Eddington‘s The Nature of the Physical World (1928) which I got for £3 in December 1990, in the first term of my doctoral research, and which was completely invaluable then and in writing the book that followed from it.
Keats’s Letters I bought in an already battered paperback copy for £1.30 in April 1988 (I systematically inscribed books back then), and battered it some more. An amazing volume for me: we’d studied Keats at A-level, and the Heinemann text we had then contained some of the letters, but to be able to read all of them allowed me to take a completely fresh look at him. The letters were quite prominent in the relevant tutorial essay, but also starting a persisting interest in the letter as a not-quite-literary form, a form that’s marked mostly by its formlessness, and that’s broadened out into thinking about diaries (especially Woolf’s diaries), and having the pleasure last year of teaching a student with really original ideas about Woolf’s letters.
But though it’s great to find something secondhand, the real bargains have turned out to be new books that didn’t represent a great outlay at the time, or even seem to be particularly special as physical artefacts, but which opened up a whole new world of literary possibilities. The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath (£4.95 seemed modest even in 1986); the Penguin ‘corrected’ Ulysses that I got in 1986 or 1987; the later Oxford World’s Classics edition of the same that I got in order to teach my Ulysses module at Bangor; but more than any of those The Riverside Chaucer, £8.95 in 1988, which served me well through the medieval period paper and the Special Author option on Chaucer. Chaucer isn’t my favourite medieval poet, but the Riverside edition was a bargain, both for the range of poetry in it and for the compacted density of scholarly information in the notes.