Classic - verbose but true

The Haunted Bookshop - Christopher Morley

This book is not nearly as good as its prequel, Parnassus on Wheels. In The Haunted Bookshop, we meet the same protagonists, Roger and Helen, plus two new ones, Aubrey and Titania, but neither the new characters nor the double number of pages made this novel better. Just the opposite, I think the longer format caused the writer to succumb to the unforgivable sin: wordiness.

The story itself mostly takes place in Roger’s bookshop in Brooklyn and, like its predecessor, it proclaims the value of books and reading. Unfortunately, the author allows his hero, Roger, the bookseller, to expound on his favorite subject of literacy for far too long. Sometimes it reads like forever, and I skipped those pages.

Examples? Ten pages of an incomprehensible conversation of the booksellers – skipped. To give the author his due, he warned his readers in a footnote to skip those pages, if they are not booksellers. Five pages of Roger’s inner monologue on the same subject – skipped. Roger’s prolonged and repetitive discourses on the evils of war – skipped. Seven pages of Roger’s letter to his brother-in-law, presented in its entirety – skipped. In some places, the book reads like a sermon to literature and peace, boring and didactic, instead of a story it’s supposed to be. The story got subjugated by the preaching.

The long, involved moralizing slows down the action, and the heroes are not as well defined as they could’ve been. Although the main plot line is something of a thriller, with an enigmatic book that keeps appearing and disappearing from the shelves, overall, the novel is a bit tedious. The mystery scheme only coalesces into existence at about midpoint, throwing off the balance of the tale. Before that, it is mostly an empty talk. After that, it is almost a sprint to get to the end.

I think this book could’ve been twice shorter, and it would’ve been twice better for cutting out all the extra verbiage. I happen to agree with Roger’s point of view on all counts, but his long harangues don’t make his sentiments any more valid than they already are.       

One more complaint – everyone is smoking in Roger’s bookshop. He himself smokes constantly. I could almost sense the disgusting smell as I read – it’s so-o-o dated.

Still, I finished the book and I’m not sorry I spent the time. Roger is a wise man, his love for books is contagious, especially when expressed in a condensed form, and his humor is sometimes irresistible.

“People don’t know they want books. I can see just by looking at you that your mind is ill for lack of books but you are blissfully unaware of it. People don’t go to a bookseller until some serious mental accident or disease makes them aware of their danger. Then they come here. For me to advertise would be about as useful as telling people who feel perfectly well that they ought to go to the doctor.”

“Between ourselves, there is no such thing, abstractly, as a ‘good’ book. A book is ‘good’ only when it meets some human hunger or refutes some human error. A book that is good for me would very likely be punk for you. … There is no one so grateful as the man to whom you have given just the book his soul needed and he never knew it.”

“I don’t mind a man stealing books if he steals good ones!”

Roger’s loathing for war (the book was written soon after the end of the WWI) is also worth mentioning. I’m with him 100%.

“You see those children going down the street to school? Peace lies in their hands. When they are taught in school that War is the most loathsome scourge humanity is subject to, that it smirches and fouls every lovely occupation of the mortal spirit, then there may be some hope for the future. But I’d like to bet they are having it drilled into them that war is a glorious and noble sacrifice.”

It is a classic, and one should make allowances to its venerable age – 100 years – when reading it. Like an old man, this book is often more verbose than we would like, but even now, 100 years after its publication, every word still rings true. Recommended!