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Book Crawls – U of T Book Sales

October 16, 2010

Note: I updated this post several times between sales, so some of the writing changes tenses. I don’t like to revise posts, so just go with it.

Every year in Toronto, several campuses of The University of Toronto put on massive book sales. We’re talking thousands of used and antiquarian titles, donated by friends of the University, libraries, private donors, and estate donations from teachers and former students. Victoria (Sep 23-27), University (Oct 15-19), Trinity (Oct 22-26) and St. Michael’s (Oct 26-30) colleges all take part over the course of September-October.

These are some of the best book sales of the year, and the books are generally very cheap. One of the ‘traditions’ is to have empty cardboard boxes available for patrons, and trust me, the patrons freely avail themselves of this opportunity. Many bibliophiles cart away a half-dozen boxes or more, their reading material until the next set of sales.

The sales are set up in the main halls of these colleges, some of the oldest and most beautiful rooms in the city. The main downtown campus of U of T is beautiful to walk through, and participates in many cultural events in Toronto (Nuit Blanche the most recent example). If you’ve never walked through the downtown campus, do so…it’s a real treat.

Insulin was discovered in these buildings. And the faculty:

  • Harold Innis
  • Marshall McLuhan
  • Northrop Frye
  • Robertson Davies

I could go on and on. I’m sometimes boastful about being schooled in ‘the university of life’, but I admit to being deeply envious of the students who attended U of T when these professors were teaching.

I haven’t been to these sales for a decade or more, mainly because I really can’t trust myself at these types of things. The selection is incredible. Many of the book donations come from teachers, students, and the intellectual brain trust of Toronto and the surrounding area: artists, musicians, writers, and educators. The treasures you can find here are as deeply rewarding as the hunt for them.

I’ve been to the Victoria and UC sales so far, and have been very conservative (so far…I’m sure the dam will break eventually). I’d like to talk about a few of the finds so far.

The Victoria Sale

I’m currently compiling a bibliography of books issued by the CBC, based on radio and TV transcripts, and the Vic sale increased my store of Ceeb books considerably. Some of these books are worth it just for the graphic design alone. Many were written by Canadians.

  • W. E. K. Middleton — The Scientific Revolution: CBC University of the Air
  • David Bakan — Slaughter of the Innocents: Six Talks for CBC Radio
  • Maurice Cranston — Philosophy and Language: Six Talks for CBC Radio
  • Earle Birney — The Creative Writer
    This was a real steal. Birney is one of Canada’s most celebrated poets, and a book by him speaking about his craft is priceless.
  • Eli Mandel — Criticism: The Silent-Speaking Words: Eight Talks for CBC Radio
    I’ve been looking for this book for awhile. I spotted it once in a used bookstore, but it was marked up in pen and highlighter. This one was marked in pencil, but I’ve managed to restore it to a somewhat readable condition.
  • David Cayley — George Grant in Conversation
    Grant is one of Canada’s most celebrated philosophers and critics…Cayley has done several book-length interviews of leading Canadians, including Northrop Frye. I’m going to enjoy reading this one.
  • Arthur Koestler, René Dubos, Martin Meyerson and Northrop Frye — The Ethics of Change: A Symposium

I also managed to score a first edition of F. R. Scott’s Selected Poems in the antiquarian section. Scott created the first federal socialist party in Canada. It disbanded, but was resurrected as the NDP. His books have become a fairly rare occurrence to see in used shops in Toronto, and I’m very happy I found this. At $15, it was just in my price range.

A few other scores:

  • Susan Sontag — Against Interpretation
    This essay collection includes many of Sontag’s most famous pieces, including Simone Weil and Notes on “Camp”. I’ve been eyeing this for some time, but the kicker was that this edition is paperback-sized with a photo of the younger Sontag on the cover. It’s totally a 60’s kitsch cover, with a brainy core. Awesome.
  • C. B. Macpherson — The Life and Times of Liberal Democracy
    Macpherson’s The Real World of Democracy is a Massey Lecture classic, and he’s written several other books on democracy. This is another I’m really looking forward to.
  • Eric Havelock — Harold A. Innis: A Memoir
    A thin book, but a great find. Innis has been on my backburner for quite some time, and finding this has me motivated to dive into more Innis.
  • Robert Craft — Conversations with Igor Stravinsky
    Stravinsky was very opinionated, and this book-length interview is a fascinating portrait of the modern composer.

The UC sale

This is one of my favorites. I love the hall. I’m only one day in, but have found some good books already. A major disappointment was finding M. H. Abrams The Mirror and the Lamp in an unreadable condition. Some folk can read a book that’s been marked up…I can’t. It drives me crazy when someone runs a highlighter through a book. Guilty confession: I did this myself with Camus’ The Rebel and Chatwin’s Songlines…I’ve regretted it.

  • Elizabeth Barrett Browning — Sonnets from the Portuguese
    The Peter Pauper Press edition, beautifully illustrated by Mary Jane Gorton. I love PPP books, and buy them whenever I find them. Peter Beilenson produced these books across his lifetime, as a creative outlet when he wasn’t professionally typesetting for publishers like New Directions and Penguin, and his attention to detail and choice of subject matter and illustrators were unfailingly perfect.
  • Barbara Ward — The Rich Nations and the Poor Nations
    The inaugural Massey Lecture. The one that started it all. This is the second printing, still identified as “Six Talks for CBC Radio” on the cover, as opposed to the Massey Lecture Series. The bonus is the listing of additional Ceeb books at the back, which has clarified a few things in terms of my bibliography project.
  • Barbara Ward — Spaceship Earth
  • David Galloway — Shakespeare: Seven Talks for CBC Radio
  • E. B. White — Here is New York
    Originally published in Holiday magazine, this is White’s Ode to New York.
  • Donald Creighton — Harold Adams Innis: Portrait of a Scholar
    More Innis!
  • Charles Lamb — Essays of Elia: Selected
    I’ve been wanting an accessible version of Essays of Elia since Anne Fadiman described Lamb in Ex Libris, her book of occasional essays. This gives me a general selection that’s not overwhelming.

I’m sure I’ll have more to add to this later in the month, as I work my way through the Trinity and St. Michael’s sales. If you’ve never been to the U of T sales, go. There’s something for everyone, and proceeds go to the libraries of these colleges, providing better facilities for students, scholars, and researchers.


Trinity is one of the oldest campuses at U of T, and for someone who has only a high school diploma, it can be both intimidating and stuffy. The old guard of culture reigns supreme here.

On the other hand, the sale has sections for everyone, even if fiction and literature are split into categories like ‘popular novels before 1970’.

  • Andrew Jones — Whisky Talk
    It’s about time I learned some extra tidbits about my favorite libation.
  • Hermann Hesse — Selected Poems
    Hesse tends to attract the young, and I was no exception. I’ve found myself drawn to him again. In a previous post, I described what I call ‘quiet writing’, and Hesse fits that bill.
  • Roland Barthes — The Pleasure of the Text
  • Robin Neill — A New Theory of Value: The Canadian Economics of H. A. Innis
    I saw this once at a Goodwill, but left it, thinking it would kick around for awhile…I was wrong. I’m glad I found it again.
  • M. H. Abrams — The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition
    Found an unmarked copy! I’m a big fan of Abrams A Glossary of Literary Terms, and I’ve been poking around for other books by him.
  • Rudolf Arnheim — Entropy and Art: An Essay on Disorder and Order
    This book contrasts art theory with the second law of thermodynamics. Ok, I’ll bite. I have to see how this one turns out.
  • George Woodcock — Civil Disobedience: Seven Talks for CBC Radio
    Woodcock is an author I’ve had great respect for, but never read. The respect tends to come from his lifetime of defending anarchism as a legitimate political theory. One of the great things about Canada is the political diversity we’ve maintained throughout the course of our history. It’s time to read him, and find out if the respect for his beliefs translates into respect for his writing.
  • W. G. Hardy — The Greek and Roman World: Ten Talks for CBC Radio

Sunday…Round Two!! I kinda got carried away…but hey, eight books for twenty bucks is a steal!!

  • Benjamin Franklin — Poor Richard’s Almanack
    This is the first Peter Pauper Press book I’ve seen that comes in an oversize edition. Like all other PPP books, it’s absolutely beautiful.
  • Henry David Thoreau — On Man and Nature
    Another PPP book, a collection of excerpts from his books. The illustrations in this seem to go beyond simple screen-printing techniques, as well.
  • Dennis Lee — Savage Fields
    An extended essay comparing Ondaatje’s Collected Works of Billy the Kid and Cohen’s Beautiful Losers. A very interesting find.
  • Harold Innis — Essays in Canadian Economic History
    This book is huge…you can kill mice with this thing.
  • Sidney Lamb — Tragedy: CBC University of the Air
  • John Kenneth Galbraith — The Underdeveloped Country
    The Massey Lecture for 1965.
  • Science & Conscience: A Television Symposium
    Another CBC book, with more authors than I can list here. Interestingly, Alred J. Ayer was asked to participate.
  • John Livingston and Lister Sinclair — Darwin and the Galapagos
    This is based on a 1960’s CBC TV special that ran on The Nature of Things. It’s a beautiful, oversized book with lots of pictures.

St. Michael’s

The sale was held in the cafeteria of their library, a very modern building which really doesn’t appeal to me. I’m convinced that 1960’s to 1970’s architecture could account for at least a third of clinical depression in North America. That being said, we’re here for the reading material!

This is the first time I’ve been to a St. Mike’s sale, and the selection was a little more pop-culture than the other sales. Also, a lot of discards from the library, which is cool. Discards are usually the really exotic stuff from authors you may not have found otherwise. True to the college’s namesake, religious books took center stage, with the largest selection by far.

Big disappointment: finding a ruined Peter Pauper Press edition of one of my favorite poetry books: A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. Someone had torn the cover off. Boo on you, whoever you were! SAVAGE!!!

  • Harold G. Henderson — An Introduction to Haiku
    Henderson was a strong advocate of English haiku, and wrote many books on teaching and writing the form. This is a general introduction, with sections on and translations of many of the Japanese masters, including Basho and Shiki.
  • James Hackett — Haiku Poetry, Volumes 1-4
    Four separate books, each a collection of haiku Hackett has written. I once owned volumes 3 and 4, having found them at an impromptu book sale in a public park on the way home from work. Glad to find them in set! One of the great English haiku poets. Bonus: introduction by R. H. Blyth!
  • Alfred North Whitehead — Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect
    I’m glad this is under a hundred pages…the title alone makes me afraid. I’m reading a book on Continental philosophy (in Oxford’s Very Short Introduction series), and although Whitehead’s name doesn’t come up, the general differences between Continental and analytic philosophy, and their attitude towards how we construct a world-view, leads me to think this might be a good supplementary read. If my head doesn’t explode first.
  • Henri Bergson — Philosophy of Poetry
    This guy was mentioned in the Continental philosophy book! A book-length critique and commentary of Lucretius, whom I’ve never read, but whose poem On the Nature of Things is always mentioned alongside Aristotle’s Poetics.
  • Ralph Greenhill — The Face of Toronto
    A trade-sized book of Toronto street photography from 1960. It has a lot of residential architecture, and I’m intrigued to find out if the locations have survived. This may become my ‘guidebook’ to Toronto next summer.
  • Thomas Merton — Cables to the Ace
    One of the last books Merton ever published, released just around the time of his death. Merton produced a prodigious amount of poetry throughout his life, and although many of it is liturgical in nature, his last books are powerfully secular while remaining rooted in his monastic vocation. I’ve been a fan of Merton for a long time, and look forward to reading this.
  • George Woodcock — The Rejection of Politics and Other Essays
    A collection of magazine/newspaper articles, highlighting Woodcock’s strong anarchist leanings. A discard from a library whose only remaining identifier is the “BRENTWOOD” stamp on the front page…your discard is my gain.
  • T. M. Robinson — The Greek Legacy
    More Ceeb books! This was published in 1979, based on an Ideas show. It comes very close to the mark where House of Anansi press took over publishing/distribution duties for the CBC.
  • Robert Jay Lifton and Richard Falk — Indefensible Weapons
    The 1982 CBC Massey Lecture series, though I can’t quite believe the entire book was broadcast, as it almost three times the size of any other Massey lecture I’ve come across.

The totals

  • 12 books at Victoria
  • 7 books at University College
  • 16 books at Trinity
  • 12 books at St. Michael’s
  • Total: 47 books! Damn, that is impressive, even for me.

Of that total:

  • 16 CBC books. Total score!!
  • 3 Peter Pauper Press editions
  • A lot of good finds on Harold Innis and George Woodcock
  • I’ve read 4 of them already!

I’m really happy. Even though the St. Mike’s sale runs to Saturday, I can’t go back. That was a monumental splurge, even for me. I’ll have reading material for months.

Again, I urge you to check out these annual sales. You’ll be helping the colleges purchase books for students, run their facilities and sponsor events. These sales are part of a vibrant book scene in Toronto, and even if you’re only interested in light reading, they will have something you’re looking for.

Go. Find something cool. Pass it on.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Liam permalink
    October 24, 2010 7:29 pm

    Sontag’s ‘Against Interpretation’ is one of those books that actually changes the way you view the world, art anyway. One of the most important takeaways from my own university experience.

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