Reblogged (and updated) from my earlier blog, The Ineluctable Bookshelf (originally posted May 10, 11, 2010)
Parnassus on Wheels (1917) and The Haunted Bookshop (1919), Christopher Morley
When I asked the dealer in the used bookshop about these books, he said they were “cute as a button,” and I can now safely say that the first one meets that description.
Adventure, love, and books: a nearly unbeatable combination, and Morley puts them together very neatly. Helen McGill, age 39, lives with her unappreciative brother, a farmer whose recent fame as an author causes him to neglect his farm. Then adventure, in the form of a horse-drawn bookstore (the Parnassus of the title), falls into her lap, and she heads out onto the byways of Connecticut preaching the “gospel of good books.”
… when you sell a man a book you don’t sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue–you sell him a whole new life. Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night–there’s all heaven and earth in a book ….
This is one of those stories where you guess fairly early on what’s going to happen to the heroine, but you enjoy watching her finally catch up with you.
The sequel, The Haunted Bookshop, moves away from Helen McGill to focus on three other characters–her husband, Roger Mifflin, now a second-hand bookseller in Brooklyn, and a young man and woman who meet cute in the bookshop and progress from there.
There are some mysterious shenanigans with a copy of Carlyle’s Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches, some anti-war harangues by Mifflin (with great hope for the future as Wilson heads to the peace talks in Europe), and tons of references to high and low literature (Mifflin’s conceit is that his bookshop is “haunted by the ghosts of all great literature”). Mifflin thinks that good books can make a peaceful world, but 100 years later we can see how well that’s worked out. Yet I have to admit, the past century doesn’t actually disprove Mifflin’s argument. He’d say people just haven’t read enough of the books that would make the difference.
This is absolutely a bibliophile’s story, with book titles appearing on nearly every page. They make you want to run to your shelves and pull down stuff you’ve been meaning to get into for years.
Half of one chapter early in the book is a conversation among booksellers, wherein they argue the purposes of bookstores. Mifflin, of course, disagrees with anyone who says it’s just a business, to be run for profit, and it doesn’t matter what tripe you sell, as long as you make a profit. For him,
… the bookseller is a public servant. He ought to be pensioned by the state. The honour of his profession should compel him to do all he can to spread the distribution of good stuff.
Leaving aside issues of who decides which stuff is good, Mifflin’s goal of putting books into everyone’s hands is admirable. No doubt, he’d agree with Kafka, that a book must be “the ax for the frozen sea within us.”
I was, by coincidence, rereading these books this weekend (in between bouts with The Education of Henry Adams, which Morely namechecks in his sequel) and came across this quote from Leonid Andreyev’s Confessions of a Little Man During Great Days:
My anger has left me, my sadness returned, and once more the tears flow. Whom can I curse, whom can I judge, when we are all alike unfortunate? Suffering is universal; hands are outstretched to each other, and when they touch … the great solution will come. My heart is aglow, and I stretch out my hand and cry, “Come, let us join hands! I love you, I love you!”
Now I’m reading Andreyev’s novel of WWI, hoping for a tiny bit of sense in a senseless world.