On Five-and-Three-Quarter Books for $50

I kept my Canadian $50 bill crisp and clean for more than six months before I — finally — decided to take it out of its prestine envelope and use it. The money had been a birthday gift which I had been saving to spend on books (obviously!). It’s all gone now . . . plus a little more; hence the “-and-Three-Quarter . . .” part in the name of this post.

But as I reflect now upon the books that I bought, it occurs to me that the entire process was fairly representative of my book buying habits: favourite genres, variety of places I buy, varying costs.

In order of acquisition, then, here are the 5 ¾ books I bought with my $50 of birthday money:

    1. Samuel Butler’s Selected Essays – $4.95

      This I found almost a year ago at a second-hand bookstore in town. I was browsing the “Literary Criticism” section when its slim blue hardcover caught my eye and Selected Essays shot out from its gilt titled spine. Now were these true essays? I had to ask myself. I opened the volume up to the title page, found an essay which looked promising called “How to Make the Best of Life,” then turned to it, and read:

      I have been asked to speak on the question of how to make the best of life, but may as well confess at once that I know nothing about it. I cannot think that I have made the best of my own life, nor is it likely that I shall make much better of what may or may not remain to me. I do not even know how to make the best of the twenty minutes that your committee has placed at my disposal, and as for life as a whole, whoever yet made the best of such a colossal opportunity by conscious effort and deliberation?

      In French, when we meet someone for the first time, we say “Enchanté.” I had the synonymous feeling when I read that passage. “I am enchanted to meet you,” my soul said back to it. But I put it back on the shelf — I hadn’t received the $50 yet with which to buy it.

    2. E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel – $3.95

      This was the book which caused me to break the beautiful $50 bill. I returned again to the used book/record store where Butler’s Essays had been, but was unable to locate the title again (this was several months after seeing it for the first time). The books had been rearranged, I noted. Instead, I saw Forster’s book. I’d studied three of Forster’s novels in an English seminar course (A Passage to India, A Room with a View, and Howards End), and at one point during my MFA in creative writing had also consulted his Aspects of the Novel. In it, he famously proposes the ideas of “round” and “flat” characters, in terms of their development. A copy of my own? I decided to buy it, and soon after found Butler, tucked away somewhere behind, which I also then purchased.

    3. L.M. Montgomery’s Akin to Anne: Tales of Other Orphans – 50¢

      I found this paperback at the local public library book cart sale, which is different from the semi-annual library book sale. I’ve written about the latter in a previous blog post, whereas what I’m talking about now is the cart of books that’s left in an inconspicuous place in the library year round, where patrons may browse and buy a hardcover for $1, a paperback for 50¢, and a magazine for 25¢. I restrained myself, however, and went to check at home to make sure I did not already have a copy before making the purchase. I had other titles in the same series of collected short stories by L.M. Montgomery, published as McClellan and Stewart paperbacks: Across the Miles, Among the Shadows, Against the Odds, and Along the Shore. But I had not purchased Akin to Anne. Or so I thought. After I’d returned home the second time, I discovered that I indeed had an ex-libris copy of the same in hardcover sitting in a different section, a copy which I realized I had bought over 20 years ago from a similar book cart sale in the public library I’d frequented as a youth.

    4. Leslie Jamison, ed. The Best American Essays 2017 – $16.39

      I bought this book online on the day of its expected publication: October 3, 2017. And yet, I found that it was less expensive for me to buy it — new! — from a bookseller in the UK, on an American website, than it was to buy it from the US or Canada, where I was living. To buy from the UK bookseller, it was $13.10 (USD), with a converted currency of $16.39 (CDN). And shipping was free from the UK to Canada! Had I bought a copy from the US, it would have cost me the fixed $15.99 in USD as advertised on its barcode. On that day, the conversion would have made it approximately $20.01, plus shipping, which was $3.99 — converted was approximately $4.99 — which was a grand total of a beautiful $25.00 (CDN). As it was, I looked up the “higher in Canada” price which was not listed on the barcode (it fluctuates so much now that they stopped listing it on American books a number of years ago – at least, that’s my assumption for why). And so I looked. In Canada, I could buy it for $19.42 online, or $22.50 at my local bookstore (“SAVE 13%!” the website of a prominent Canadian bookstore proclaimed). Ha! I saved $8.51 by buying British, with Royal Mail delivered to my door. I received my copy a week and a day following. Not bad, I thought. I’ve almost finished reading it, and when I do, I will put it with my growing collection of past BEA anthologies, all bought at the lowest price.

    5. L.M. Montgomery’s After Many Years: Twenty-One ‘Long-Lost’ Stories – $23.50

      This was another title which, like 1) I had seen some time ago, and 4) it came out this year. I don’t often buy new, and even more rare do I buy books published in the same calendar year as the buying, which is a different thing from buying First Editions, something I have been known to do at second-hand bookstores. It seems to me that a “First Edition” is a status that is often given retroactively to books that have since become rare, scarce, valuable. Anyhow, this collection of Montgomery’s “long-lost” stories were ones that had originally been published in her lifetime in various periodicals, but as a collection was now being published posthumously for the first time. And while the other prepositional ‘A’ titles were published from the late 80s to mid 90s (see #3 in this list), edited by Rea Wilmshurst, this title made its debut more than twenty years later, edited this time by Carolyn Strom Collins and Christy Woster. (Note: did you know that you can receive store points for buying new books, which in turn lets you buy even more?)

    6.  Mavis Gallant’s, Paris Stories – $1

      Now is the point at which it gets tricky (with the math, I mean). I very much wanted to spend the exact $50 which I’d been given as a birthday gift — nothing over, and certainly nothing under — but it proved impossible with the last buy. (I was now at $49.29). And yet, I went to the local library book sale in their basement, and bought this Canadian ex-pat’s book of short stories. I’d read some of Gallant’s work in my Canlit class as an undergraduate, and then again found a collection of her writing at a cottage I was staying at a few years back. I decided to dive in again, and buy this for $1. But instead of going just modestly over my mark by 29¢ which this book had caused me to do, in addition, I purchased a number of other books in the basement of the library that day, which I have not listed here. And then, to top it all off (this I mention to demonstrate the extent of my unbridled restraint), the following week, I went to another library book sale and bought an entire bag full of essays!

So ends my account of how I spent my $50 of birthday money, with my foibles of taking my time to buy books inexpensively, and then long-jumping over my allotted amount.

Below I’ve included a few statistics for your interest and enjoyment, based on the legitimate 5 ¾ (rounded up to six) purchases, which, as I wrote earlier, I feel are fairly indicative of my book buying habits, with the exception that I tend to read more nonfiction than fiction these days, and the fiction I do read tends to be novels (yet no novels were purchased this time around!)


Stats for Book Purchases

Genre: Short Stories (3); Essays (2); Literary Criticism (1)

Length: collection of short-form (5); long-form (1); epic (0)

Cost: low (50¢); high ($23.50); average ($8.38)

Writers: L.M. Montgomery (2); essayists (2); other (2)

Writer/Editor Nationality: Canadian (3); British (2); American (1)

Format: hardcover (2); paperback (4); ebook (0)

Cover Colour: blue (3); green (2); burgundy (1)


Question: What do your book buying habits look like?