12 January 2013

Parnassus on Wheels (Christopher Morley)

I missed 2013's inaugural WORD Classics Book Club this afternoon, due to dumb stupid bronchitis. I've been sick this whole year so far, wheeeee! But this year's theme (after Russians and NYRB Brits) is novellas, and Christopher Morley's 1917 paean to the bookselling life, Parnassus on Wheels, started us off in most delightful fashion.

It's the story of Miss Helen McGill, long-suffering sister to Andrew, a best-selling author of Thoreau-ish meditations on the joys of rural life. While he taps away at his typewriter maintaining his reputation as the "Sage of Redfield," she's stuck running the farm, and has drifted into plump middle age without much incident. This all changes with the arrival of red-bearded Roger Mifflin and his traveling Parnassus--a robin's-egg blue wagon cleverly outfitted with bookshelves on both sides, laden with everything from classics to cookbooks, which its proprietor has driven for years around the country, bringing books, and the worlds within them, to the rural masses. Mr. Mifflin intends to sell the whole shebang--including horse Pegasus and terrier Bock--to Andrew, for he plans to move back to Brooklyn and write a book of his own, on "Literature Among the Farmers." Helen, sure that the acquisition of more books will simply make her brother more insufferable, makes a spur-of-the-moment decision to buy it herself, and have some adventures of her own.

Obviously, as a bookmonger myself, I am very much a choir being preached to here, but I think even those who have never experienced the joys of a great handsell (that is, matching just the right book with just the right customer) would find Parnassus adorable. And oh so quotable! See Mifflin's assertion that "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." Or his love of his home borough: "New York is Babylon; Brooklyn is the true Holy City. New York is the city of envy, office work, and hustle; Brooklyn is the region of home and happiness. It is extraordinary: poor, harassed New Yorkers presume to look down on low-lying, home-loving Brooklyn, when as a matter of fact it is the jewel their souls are thirsting for and they never know it." And though I wouldn't call it "feminist" quite, it's always nice to read a (SPOILER ALERT) romantic comedy with a leading lady pushing forty--and forty was older in those days, too! All in all, quite worth an afternoon. And come December, while I won't be in Brooklyn to discuss it (having retreated to my low-lying, home-loving hometown), I shall for sure be reading Morley's sequel, The Haunted Bookshop.

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