A Jarring Note

Our ancestors classed nostalgia among the mental diseases, and some people think they were right about that. So I am not here to nostalge.

But amid my series of columns saluting topics related to the Mystery and More Book Fair, which is usually held this last weekend or this next weekend but which is not being held any weekend this year because we thought it would be better to offer all those mysteries and westerns and romances in July even though some people prefer the little sale in March and other people would prefer we just donated all our fiction to some other sale and made room for the good stuff and the…where were we?

I wanted to pause for a few observations on the Penny Jar. This was, as you might deduce, Watson, a jar full of pennies. It sat out at the Mystery and More Book Fair and waited for people to guess the number of pennies in the jar. The winner got a $25 gift certificate to the A.C. McClurg Bookstore, and everybody got their name and address checked against our database to see if we were making any new friends in the process. It was fun (for me, at least, since I knew how many pennies there were, and could sneer at everyone who guessed wrong.)

Everybody loved the Penny Jar but nobody liked the Penny Jar. “Why don’t you have a bigger jar with more pennies?” “Why don’t you let the winner take home the jar and the pennies?” “Why don’t you have a really GOOD prize?” “Why couldn’t it be jelly beans? I can concentrate better on large amounts of food.”

The answers to these FAQs are “Try picking up THAT jar and think what one twice as big would weigh.” “Because it’s my jar and my pennies, and I get to take my own toys home at the end of the party.” “Tell me again why you came to a BOOK fair?” and “I sympathize completely, but jelly beans are harder to save from year to year.”

I learned things from the Penny Jar. It takes a human being using his fingers roughly three hours to count to 1600 by pennies. Anyway, that’s what it took me. (That’s why I saved ‘em from year to year: instead of counting them all over, I could merely change jars and add or subtract a few.) More people guess low than guess high, or else more pessimists come to book sales than optimists. Most mystery customers are trusting souls: not one person ever asked if I had added a golf ball or a balloon to mislead the viewer. The winners tended to be the vertical thinkers, the analysts: one told me his method was to imagine a roll of pennies, and then try to visualize how many times that roll went into the jar. I believe he came within 11 cents one year. And I learned that the modern penny, if sealed in a glass jar with other pennies for a year, takes on an odd waxy feel. I haven’t found out why just yet, but it doesn’t seem to be anything poisonous.

Was this all to the good for the Newberry Library? I always feel you can’t really assess the full effect of anything until years later. But I will say that at the time it seemed to make cents.

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