morley feature

Can Two 90-Year-Old Books Be Slight and Sentimental and Really Good?

NOVELS: Parnassus on Wheels & The Haunted Bookshop

AUTHOR: Christopher Morley

YEARS OF PUBLICATION: 1917, 1919

REVIEW:

Somehow you don’t expect a 99 year-old debut novel, written by a man in his 20s, to be such a plainly feminist book. But it is. Parnassus on Wheels is the perfectly charming story of Helen McGill, a stodgy spinster, fed up with keeping house for her brother (a gentleman farmer who has had some literary success), who impulsively purchases a bookshop on wheels from a strange little man named Roger Mifflin, and begins touring around New England with him, his horse, and his dog, finding adventure and happiness in the process. Roger, it turns out, is passionate about books, loving them with an almost ferocious intensity, and making it his mission to educate and enlighten everyone he can with the wisdom and joy of literature. Eccentric, scrappy, and loyal, he ends up an unlikely autumnal love interest for our heroine, who also exhibits some surprising resourcefulness and courage on the road.

Yes, it’s a slight and sentimental tale. It doesn’t matter. It’s simply delightful, and every lover of books should have this one in their personal collection.
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Here’s Roger on the booksellers’ trade: “Lord!” he said, “when you sell a man a book you don’t just sell him 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, a real book I mean.”

 And Helen, after a little time in his company, on what she longs to call out to a farm wife she sees on the road: “Oh, silly woman! Leave your stove, your pots and pans and chores, even if only for one day! Come out and see the sun in the sky and the river in the distance!”

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The whole story is infused by books and their pleasures, and if you’re looking for more to read, you could certainly develop quite a good list from Roger’s recommendations within.

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If you can’t get enough of Roger and Helen, they’re also featured in a sequel, The Haunted Bookshop. This 1919 novel is set in Brooklyn at the end of WWI. It has more of a suspenseful plot, involving a young advertising agent, a beautiful young woman learning about the business of selling books, various shady characters, and some suspicious disappearances and reappearances of an old copy of Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell.

 The true joy here isn’t how the mysterious events unfold (although that is good fun), but all the book talk. It includes a sly critical mention of Parnassus as an amusing bit of metafiction, and it just may be even more chock-full of literary references than its prequel.

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Two of the most quotable bits from The Haunted Bookshop:

Printer’s ink has been running a race against gunpowder these many, many years. Ink is handicapped, in a way, because you can blow up a man with gunpowder in half a second, while it may take twenty years to blow him up with a book. But the gunpowder destroys itself along with its victim, while a book can keep on exploding for centuries.

 And lastly:

ON THE RETURN OF A BOOK
LENT TO A FRIEND

I GIVE humble and hearty thanks for the safe return of this book which having endured the perils of my friend’s bookcase, and the bookcases of my friend’s friends, now returns to me in reasonably good condition.

I GIVE humble and hearty thanks that my friend did not see fit to give this book to his infant as a plaything, nor use it as an ash-tray for his burning cigar, nor as a teething-ring for his mastiff.

WHEN I lent this book I deemed it as lost: I was resigned to the bitterness of the long parting: I never thought to look upon its pages again.

BUT NOW that my book is come back to me, I rejoice and am exceeding glad! Bring hither the fatted morocco and let us rebind the volume and set it on the shelf of honour: for this my book was lent, and is returned again.

PRESENTLY, therefore, I may return some of the books that I myself have borrowed.

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Pick it up and visit The Haunted Bookshop—with nothing supernatural at all to be found there, just “the ghosts of all great literature,” which haunt libraries and bookstores forevermore.

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RATING (one to five whistles, with five being the best): 4 1/2 Whistles

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HOW TO PURCHASE:

You can buy them together at Amazon (or separately, as you like), and as both novels are in the public domain, they are also available at Project Gutenberg.

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ALSO ON OUR BOOKSHELVES:

A Patchwork Planet, Anne Tyler

A Room With a View, E.M. Forster

An Infamous Army, Georgette Heyer

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Bleak House, Charles Dickens

Blue Highways, William Least Heat-Moon

Bonjour Tristesse, Francoise Sagan

Bunker Hill, Nathan Philbrick

Burmese Days, George Orwell

Cannery Row, John Steinbeck

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, Roz Chast

Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell

Cockpit Confidential, Patrick Smith

Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons

Ed Emberly’s Drawing Book of Animals, Ed Emberly

Endangered Pleasures, Barbara Holland

Envious Casca, Georgette Heyer

Foreign Affairs, Alison Lurie

Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers

Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee

Good Poems, Garrison Keillor

Gowanus Waters, Steven Hirsch

Heads in Beds, Jacob Tomsky

Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen, Laurie Colwin

Hyperbole and a Half, Allie Brosh

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou

If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino

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Longbourn, Jo Baker

Malice Aforethought, Frances Iles

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Helen Simonson

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, Jon Krakauer

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My Life in France, Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

Notorious RBG, Irin Carmon & Shana Knizhnik

One Summer: America 1927, Bill Bryson

Out of the Blackout, Robert Bernard

Plotted: A Literary Atlas, Andrew DeGraff

Possession, A.S. Byatt

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Ringworld, Larry Niven

Rose Madder, Stephen King

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Carlo Rivelli

Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart

The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Ed., Lewis Carroll & Martin Gardner (with original illustrations by John Tenniel)

The Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Galbraith

The Dancer of Izu, Kawabata Yasunari

The House Without a Key, Earl Derr Biggers

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., Adelle Waldman

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, Oliver Sacks

The Martian, Andy Weir

The Modern Kids, Jona Frank

The Monogram Murders, Sophie Hannah

The Mother & Child Project, Hope Through Healing Hands (ed.)

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark

The Tender Bar, J.R. Moehringer

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce

The Unrest-Cure and Other Stories, Saki

The Westing Game, Ellen Raskin

They Call Me Naughty Lola, David Rose

What If?, Randall Munroe

Up At the Villa, W. Somerset Maugham

84, Charing Cross Road, Helene Hanff

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Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

Laura can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com

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Lead-In Image Courtesy of Everett Collection / Shutterstock.com