Thursday, July 13, 2006

Parnassus

Christopher Morley's Parnassus on Wheels is delightful — "graceful in style, light in substance, merry in its attitude toward life, and entertaining in every aspect of its plot and insight into character," to quote the Boston Evening Transcript as cited in the introduction to my 1955 edition. Written in 1917, its stylings and rhythms are of another era, and this only adds to its charm.

I read it in just a couple sittings. It's definitely a feel-good book; I suspect I'll turn to it again next time I'm in bed with the flu.

Has anybody not heard about this book? Just a few months ago it seemed to be on every blogger's lips. If you haven't read it — if you love books and have a soft spot for books about books — find it.

One day, an adventure knocks on Helen McGill's farmhouse door — she buys a bookmobile from a strange little man, only to stop her brother, now a writer who's as good as abandoned the farm, from doing same. Having compiled an anthology of 6000 loaves of bread over the years, she's hankering after a few carefree days of her own, so she ups and leaves the farm to learn the itinerant bookseller's trade, and a little something about life and love.

I began to see something of the little man's idealism in his work. He was a kind of travelling missionary in his way. A hefty talker, too. His eyes were twinkling now and I could see him warming up.

"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. Jiminy! If I were the baker or the butcher or the broom huckster, people would run to the gate when I came by — just waiting for my stuff. And here I go loaded with everlasting salvation — yes, ma'am, salvation for their little, stunted minds — and it's hard to make 'em see it. That's what makes it worth while — I'm doing something that nobody else from Nazareth, Maine, to Walla Walla, Washington, has ever thought of. It's a new field, but by the bones of Whitman it's worth while. That's what this country needs — more books!"


I'm pretty sure the bored, pudgy clerk behind the counter had no idea what he sold me.
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