Lost Classics on the Cheap


Entertainment and edification grow more expensive every year. Hopscotch and the school of hard knocks? Free. An Xbox 360 and a year at B.U.? $37,000.

In the spirit of our current economic woes—and my new guide to American Jewish fiction—I propose lost literary classics as the best bargain you can find these days. No matter what your 401(k) looks like, or how much of your trust fund Madoff flushed down the toilet, if you're a dedicated reader you will never lack for meaningful distractions.

First, familiarize yourself with online booksellers, if you haven't already. I prefer bookfinder.com, which aggregates results from dozens of merchants, small and large; the site lists all of the available copies of a particular title in order of price, including the shipping charges. This is a crucial feature, because shipping accounts for most of the cost of used books online: it's easy to find great literature on sale for a penny, but you'll never get a book in your hands for less than about $2.

To maximize your budget, you'll need to consider how much reading you can extract from any given book, factoring in its length and complexity. Sure, at $2.95, Faye Kellerman's first and, by many accounts, best, thriller, The Ritual Bath (1986), is an excellent deal, but keep in mind that you can probably breeze through that in an afternoon, thanks to the book's suspenseful plotting and slick writing. If you have even a passing interest in Jewish philosophy, on the other hand, you could spend just $1.04 more on Arthur A. Cohen's masterful philosophical novel In the Days of Simon Stern (1973), and have puzzles and parables to ponder for weeks, if not months.

Truly obscure books, of which only a few copies were ever printed, tend to sell dearly, of course; but neglected bestsellers of yesteryear can be picked up for a song. If you haven't read Herman Wouk's Marjorie Morningstar (1955), or haven't read it since you were a kid, you can now land a copy for as little as $3.25; Wouk's novel is more than a little socially conservative by today's standards, but, on the other hand, it is the most readable propaganda against premarital sex ever published, and a window into a more innocent, pre-Portnoy's Complaint, era in American fiction. And speaking of Portnoy, Philip Roth's delightfully obscene classic retails for as little as $3.64, which, by my calculations, is about two cents per laugh; but if you want Roth's very best, ahem, bang for the buck, try Letting Go (1962), his first and longest novel, for just $3.99.

Not everyone has the patience for epic novels, but a good short story collection can offer an excellent dollar-per-page ratio and variety, to boot. In a recent review, I noted that Etgar Keret's short stories run about $0.25/piece in his latest collection, even paying retail; buying used, you can score rich, full-length stories for a fraction of that price. Grace Paley's Collected Stories, at $4.74, for example, offers masterful work spanning four decades; these classics range from "Goodbye and Good Luck" and "The Loudest Voice," two irreplaceable tributes to the Yiddish-accented English voices of American Jewish women, to "The Long Distance Runner," a surreal fable about the changing dynamics of urban neighborhoods. Nothing could top Bernard Malamud's Complete Stories, a steal at $5.84: written between 1940 and 1984, his peerless fictions manage to tackle everything from the failure of a Brooklyn grocery store to the tense situation for Jews in the Soviet Union to the travails of a talking horse, in styles that vary from naturalism to magic realism, with a one-act play thrown in for good measure. Malamud's "The Jewbird," itself, would be worth the cost of this volume, and so would "The Magic Barrel," but to get the whole megillah—every story ever published by the writer whom Flannery O'Connor described as "a short story writer who is better than any of them, including myself"—for less than $6? That's manna from heaven.

If shelling out even $4 would tax your current budget too much, never fear. Aside from your local library—which is, of course, your best resource for reading material (if it hasn't been forced to close by financial woes, that is)—more and more books can now be found online, as long as you can adjust your eyes to that much screen reading. Almost any book published before 1923, and thus free from copyright protection, can be read in full through Google Books or another service; this includes many very readable, neglected American Jewish classics, including Abraham Cahan's The Rise of David Levinsky(1917), about the struggle of an immigrant to reconcile his financial success and his Jewish values, and Edna Ferber's Fanny Herself(1917), about a brash young career woman who leaves her small Wisconsin town to find love and transforms a Sears and Roebuck-like mail order company into a marvel of modern efficiency. Meanwhile, if you read Yiddish, there's even better news: more than 10,000 Yiddish books, including masterpieces by Mendele Mokher Sforim, Sholem Aleichem, and I.L. Peretz, can now be downloaded, free, from the National Yiddish Book Center and the Internet Archive.

You can learn more about the books I've mentioned here, plus more than a hundred others, in my guide, so the financial crisis shouldn't slow down any dedicated readers. As for the Wall Street types whose chicanery led to this mess, I hope they have plenty of time to read, in prison cells, in the near future; to them I recommend starting with something a little more fundamental than fiction: Aristotle's Ethics, maybe?