Essay: How Many Books Can $30 Buy at the Newberry Book Fair?

When I visited the Newberry Library Book Fair on Friday, I knew I had to come up with a strategy.  It’s a locally famous sale, featuring tens of thousands of used works available very cheaply. A kind of Nirvana for a book lover, but also a kind of Hell. You can’t buy them all.

I set myself a limit of $30. And I decided to focus on bargains.

The Newberry—which will continue from 10am through 6pm Saturday and, as a half-price day, on Sunday, at 60 W. Walton St. in Chicago—is all about bargains. But there are bargains, and there are bargains. I went hunting to get the most books I could for my 30 bucks.

I bought 20.

As you can see from the list below, I ended up with a wide range of titles that reflected my wide areas of interest—literary works by Philip Roth and Allen Ginsberg, pulp westerns and science fiction and books dealing with comparative religion. Also, a few that appealed to me simply because of their covers.

Photo by Patrick T. Reardon.

If you went shopping at Newberry with $30, you’d most likely end up with a much different list.  At other times in my life, my list would have included a great deal of history books and biographies. It might also have included a lot of books about Chicago, and that was the first table I hit. Alas, virtually all of the titles there were represented on my own Chicago bookshelves.

At other times, I would have wanted to buy low-price hardcovers, but, for a variety of reasons, I was shopping this time for paperbacks.  Of the 20 I purchased, only two were hardcovers.

For any true book lover who goes to a sale like the Newberry’s, part of the fun is telling someone else about all the stuff you’ve bought.  So that’s what I’m going to do, starting now, listing the books in alphabetical order:

  • Alabam McCall by Walt Huffine—This western has this tagline on the cover: “McCall’s partner and the gold were gone. He rode out for revenge.” I was sold. Also, it’s a great name for a character.
  • Alien Planet by Fletcher Pratt—The vast majority of Pratt’s books were military history, but he also wrote a few science fiction/fantasy books, including The Well of the Unicorn, considered one of the hundred best fantasy novels.
  • Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg—Howl is one of the great poems of the 20th century and belongs with T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land at the very top. This will be an extra copy for me, maybe to give away.
  • In Quest of the Jewish Mary by Mary Christine Athans—The whole thing about Mary, the mother of Jesus, has confused me since Catholic grammar school. I like the idea of a book looking at her as a Jewish woman.
  • Melville’s Moby-Dick: A Jungian Commentary by Edward F. Edinger—A few years ago, I read Moby Dick in a really close way and fell in love with the book. What a Jungian would say about that great big white whale should be very interesting.
  • Reflections on the Psalms by C.S. Lewis—Lewis’s Mere Christianity is a wonderfully insightful book. I’ve been less impressed with some of his other books. This, though, seemed worth a try, since I like the Psalms and it only cost a dollar.
  • Model Railroading by the Editorial Staff of the Lionel Corporation—This 1950 book has a massive, powerful railroad engine barreling right off the cover, as if this were a Runaway Train sort of novel. In fact, it’s a fancy promotional gimmick of the major model railroading company. I got it for a model railroading friend of mine.
  • Shakespeare’s Planet by Clifford D. Simak—The title hints at some Shakespearean connection to a science fiction story. Worth a try for a buck.
  • Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi—Levi, the great Italian Jewish writer, gave the world this moving and harrowing memoir of life and death in the Auschwitz concentration camp in World War II.
  • The Boy Who Followed Ripley by Patricia Highsmith—I don’t know anything about this book except that it’s by Highsmith and I want to read more of her stuff, particularly her books relating to Ripley.
  • The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley—I own a hardcover of this book about religious hysteria, and all I can say is I think I bought it because it was one of the first books I saw and it was misfiled with the science fiction books. 
  • The Great Religions by Which Men Live by Floyd H. Ross and Tynette Hills—Among the many books about religion that I own, I like to have books like this that approach faith from an objective, outsider perspective. 
  • The Messiah of Stockholm by Cynthia Ozick—Sometimes, I buy a book based on its title.  Of course, it didn’t hurt that it was written by Ozick, called one of the greatest living American writers by David Foster Wallace.
  • The Prime of Miss Jean Brody by Muriel Spark—I have long been a huge fan of the novelist Muriel Spark and of this novel, as well as the movie based on it, starring a 35-year-old Maggie Smith.  I’ve had a copy of this book for decades, but now I have one to give away.  Want it?
  • The Professor of Desire by Philip Roth—I’ve only recently started to read Roth, enjoying his stuff enough to buy this $3 hardcover on faith.
  • The Return by Walter de la Mare—This book, it turns out, is considered one of the most important literary works of supernatural horror during the first half of the twentieth century. H.P. Lovecraft was a big fan of de la Mare. I didn’t know any of this. I bought it for its cool British 1950s cover.
  • The Secret Visitors by James White—No real reason except this was published in 1957 when some of my favorite boy’s adventure science fiction was written.
  • The Virgin and the Gypsy by D. H. Lawrence—OK, this is probably a pretty good little novel since it’s by Lawrence. But I paid a dollar for it because it’s got a really hokey 1946 cover.
  • The Watsons by Jane Austen and John Coates—I’m a huge fan of Austen, having come late to the party but, in the last few years, falling in love with her Emma and Pride and Prejudice. I picked up this because it was a title with which I was unfamiliar. There’s a reason, it turns out. I realize now the book is based on 80 pages of a novel that Austen abandoned. Coates, whose name I didn’t notice on the cover, adapted her 7,500 pages into a 313-page book.
  • Weep Not, Child by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o—The cover indicates that this novel is part of the African Writers Series. I like reading the novels of other cultures.

Two final notes:

After a buying spree like this, there’s always the question of what to read first.  I’m finding myself drawn to Huffine’s Alabam McCall.  It’s 159 pages of what looks to be pure western genre delight.  We’ll see.

The other thing is a thought for anyone planning to go to the fair. 

Because Sunday is half-price day, if I had waited until then, I could have gotten 40 books for $30.  Just saying.

Picture of the author
Patrick T. Reardon

Patrick T. Reardon is a Chicago historian, essayist, poet and writer who was a Chicago Tribune reporter for 32 years. He is the author of nine books including the forthcoming The Loop: The ‘L’ Tracks That Shaped and Saved Chicago (SIU Press).