Christopher Morley (1890-1957) had more than 50 books published and played all manner of important roles in American literary life throughout his lifetime. Yet somehow I’d never heard of him until first Quillhill and then Ella waxed eloquent about him on their blogs (Necessary Acts of Devotion and Box of Books respectively). I’m very glad to have finally made his acquaintance. Parnassus on Wheels is a thoroughly delightful book.
The year is 1915. Our heroine is Helen McGill, a thirty-nine year old spinster who assists her brother Andrew in the running of his New England farm. Andrew is a literary man, however, and since his books have become successful, his attention to the farm and his appreciation of the work that Helen does have diminished considerably. Helen takes pride in her domestic accomplishments but she doesn’t like being saddled with all the work and she doesn’t like being taken for granted. Enter our unlikely hero. Roger Mifflin rolls into the farmyard in the “Parnassus on Wheels” of the title: a travelling bookshop. He’s been travelling around the countryside evangelizing about literature but he’s ready to pack it in to write a book of his own. He’s seeking a buyer for the Parnassus and he thought that Andrew would be a likely candidate. In an uncharacteristically impulsive moment, Helen makes the purchase herself. She rationalizes that she’s simply trying to prevent Andrew from doing the same and disappearing from the farm once and for all. But it soon becomes apparent that the seemingly settled Helen is out for a bit of adventure. In the travelling book trade, she finds it.
Just to give you a bit of the flavour of the book, here’s Roger Mifflin on the power of books:
“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 humour and ships at sea by night -- there’s all heaven and earth in a book, a real book I mean."
And Helen on the sudden change in her life:
Since the morning of the day before my whole life had twisted out of its accustomed orbit. I had spent four hundred dollars of my savings; I had sold about thirteen dollars’ worth of books; I had precipitated a fight and met a philosopher. Not only that, I was dimly beginning to evolve a new philosophy of my own.
Parnassus on Wheels serves up adventure and romance in witty fashion with a heartening message about the power of good books underlying it all. Based on this book, I’d judge Christopher Morley a master of lively diversion. I mean this as sincere praise. While books deemed “light reading” may be easy on the reader, there’s no reason to presume that they’re easy on the author. It’s hard work to produce an effective bit of light reading and it’s a real injustice that the skill of writers of comedic work is so often underestimated.
I’ve got the sequel, The Haunted Bookshop, lined up ready to go.