#bookaday (2): Best Bargain

“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.


Collected Poems, by Michael Roberts

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.


Letters of John Keats, ed. Robert Gittings

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.


The Riverside Chaucer


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