Monday, August 28, 2006

About the bookshop

The Haunted Bookshop, by Christopher Morley, refers to Roger Mifflin's Parnassus at Home, the Brooklyn shop where he (having retired from the bookmobile business) sells used books, haunted by "the ghosts of books I haven't read. Poor uneasy spirits, they walk and walk around me. There's only one way to lay the ghost of a book, and that is to read it."

So I read it. It is charming, sweet, funny, etc, but not quite so carefree as its predecessor.

Written in 1919, this little mystery story (no ghosts or hauntings, by the way) strings together several monologues (some disguised as debates or letters) mostly about the importance of literature, the power of books (in shaping our leaders!), but also against war, and with plenty of anti-German sentiment thrown in.

One of the most interesting exchanges, still timely today, concerns whether the publishing industry drives the public's tastes or feeds its demands and what role the bookseller plays between them.

While I agree with most of his points, Roger Mifflin tends to sermonize, and given the type of person likely to pick up this book, he's preaching to the choir. Repeatedly he makes the case for "good books" — real literature — over the pulp the vast majority of the public consumes (without ever really defining the qualities that constitute either; we all have a sense of what falls into these categories...).

"...if the stuff's amusing, it has its place. The human yearning for innocent pastime is a pathetic thing, come to think about it. It shows what a desperately grim thing life has become. One of the most significant things I know is that breathless, expectant, adoring hush that falls over a theatre at a Saturday matinee, when the house goes dark and the footlights set the bottom curtain in a glow, and the latecomers tank over our feet climbing into their seats — [...] but it makes me sad to see what tosh is handed out to that eager, expectant audience, most of the time. There they all are, ready to be thrilled, eager to be worked upon, deliberately putting themselves into that glorious, rare, receptive mood when they are clay in the artist's hand — and Lord! what miserable substitutes for joy and sorrow are put over on them! Day after day I see people streaming into theatre and movies, and I know that more than half the time they are on a blind quest, thinking they are satisfied when in truth they are fed on paltry husks. And the sad part about it is that if you let yourself think you are satisfied with husks, you'll have no appetite left for the real grain."


This book then is a light snack, nutritious and tasty, but not very filling. The stuff's amusing, and has its place.
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