A tribute to booksellers

Parnassus on Wheels & The Haunted Bookshop - Christopher Morley

Charming, simply charming! I don’t believe in all my readings over the years I missed this author. I’m totally in love with this short and sweet gem of a novella, published in 1917, almost a hundred years ago. I’m going to read more of Morley. I’m definitely reading the sequel – The Haunted Bookshop – as my 1947 edition of this book has both under one cover.

Despite its low page count, Parnassus on Wheels incorporates two interweaved love stories: a short, poignant romance of two middle-aged, lonely people, falling in love with each other, and a story of a man’s overwhelming love for books.

The male protagonist Roger is a 41-year-old bookseller, a reader and a dreamer. He lives in Parnassus, his home and bookshop – a capacious country wagon, stuffed with books. Roger’s life-goal is to disseminate his love of reading to as many people as he could reach. A born salesman in the best meaning of the word, he inspires people by his passion for literature. Wherever he passes – small farms and large towns – he always leaves behind books and newly-converted readers.

The female protagonist Helen is a 39-year-old spinster, keeping house for her farmer brother. A no-nonsense, practical lady, she doesn’t have time to read. Her life consists mostly of cooking, cleaning and other farm chores. On a whim, she buys Parnassus from Roger for $400 and embarks on a road trip of her lifetime: to sell books. Along the way, she falls in love with the bookseller.

The plot is simple, with no unneeded twists. The heroes just trundle along the country lanes, selling books and chatting, but I couldn’t stop reading and I smiled a lot. The adventures our travelers encounter are small, the obstacles mundane, but the inner lives of Roger and Helen are so huge and beautiful, they shine in the grayness of our humdrum existence: two twinkling stars stretching their rays of light towards each other across America.

My only complaint: Roger talks too much, with too many incomprehensible literary allusions, but like Helen, I sometimes tuned him off.  

Otherwise, the writing is yummy, humorous and clear – a pure joy to read. The book is a hymn to booksellers, all the owners of small independent bookstores. And for the first time in my reading life, which has been quite extensive, I encountered an introduction to a book written not by a scholar or another writer but by a bookseller, Joseph Margolies. Among the quotes below, the quotes I had trouble choosing from so many captivating and insightful passages in the book, a couple belongs to Margolies.

 

From the introduction:

They [these books] should be compulsory reading for all booksellers and especially for those who are beginning to doubt that there is any romance left in the selling of books.

 

The greatest compliment one can pay to the business of bookselling is that although the monetary return is not great so few ever leave it for more remunerative work. Once the virus has entered the system there is not much that can be done to remove it.

I wonder: does Amazon count as a bookseller? What about big-box chain stores? Anyone there possesses that virus?

 

From the book:

“Lord!” he said, “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 humor and ships at sea by night—there’s all heaven and earth in a book, a real book I mean….”

 

He laughed at his own vehemence. “Do you know, it’s comical,” he said. “Even the publishers, the fellows that print the books, can’t see what I’m doing for them … Sometimes I think the publishers know less about books than any one else! I guess that’s natural, though. Most school teachers don’t know much about children.” 

 

“Judging by the way you talk,” I said, “you ought to be quite a writer yourself.”

“Talkers never write. They go on talking.”

 

There are three ingredients in the good life: learning, earning, and yearning. A man should be learning as he goes; and he should be earning bread for himself and others; and he should be yearning too: yearning to know the unknowable.

 

When God at first made man (says George Herbert) he had a “glass of blessings standing by.” So He pours on man all the blessings in His reservoir: strength, beauty, wisdom, honor, pleasure—and then He refrains from giving him the last of them, which is rest, i.e., contentment. God sees that if man is contented he will never win his way to Him. Let man be restless…  

Two new words for me in this book:

 

Bunkum – empty talk

Parcheesi – a dice throwing game