Friday, December 09, 2005

Light Relief

I’ve read some weighty books of late. Not literally weighty -- rather, spare works which proved powerful, intense, sometimes devastating. I will post on them once I’ve had a proper chance to mull each one over, but in the meantime I’ve been feeling the need for a little light relief. Thus yesterday was the perfect moment to find Christopher Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels awaiting me on the library hold shelf.

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.


Colleen said...

I enjoyed both of those books so much when I read them ages ago Kate. The Haunted Bookshop is especially cool, and not at all what I expected.

Anonymous said...

Hey Kate, I really like your summary of Parnassus on Wheels -- any chance you'd allow me to use it at

Quillhill said...

Kate, I'm so pleased you enjoyed the book. It is sad that since Morley wrote such "light" fiction, he is not taken as seriously as, say, Willa Cather. However, for collectors and other enthusiasts he remains an unpolished gem.

Kate S. said...

I'd be happy to have my summary of Parnassus on Wheels used at

Julie said...

I'd never heard of him until I read Quillhill either. The book sounds delightful and I'm going to add it to my wishlist! Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I had never heard of Morely until a friend a couple of years ago found out about my passion for books about books. He bought me 'The Haunted Bookshop' at a used booksale. I just loved it. Still haven't read anything else by Morley, but plan to, in the near future.

Anonymous said...

You picked some great quotes - glad you enjoyed the story. I, too, am looking forward to "The Haunted Bookshop" and further Morleys. And he wrote fifty books? Good heavens. I'll be hunting in the Ms next time I find a decent bookstore.