About a week ago, Hobgoblin handed me a book and said he thought I would like it. This usually means I smile politely and say thanks and then put the book away. Hobgoblin does this to me when I recommend a book, too. In fact, I’ve praised Infinite Jest so highly and told him he should read it so often that now I’m worried he won’t. This time he handed me Christopher Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels and said it was about books and that it was a really fast read. I was in the mood for something exactly like that, so I broke with tradition and started reading.
And it turned out to be a whole lot of fun. It’s a book that celebrates reading and the love of books in a humorous, whimsical kind of way that is thoroughly charming. It reminds me quite a bit of Alan Bennett’s book The Uncommon Reader about Queen Elizabeth learning to love reading. The books have a similar sensibility; they portray reading as simultaneously a great amusement and also an activity that can change your life. Once you have begun reading, you have no idea where the habit will take you.
The story is told in the first person by Helen McGill, a woman who lives on a farm in Connecticut with her brother, Andrew. Andrew was once a steady, reliable person, but then he took to reading, and then to writing, and then he became a famous author, and now he can’t be trusted to do his share of the farm work. Helen finds this intensely irritating, and she does what she can to thwart Andrew’s ambitions, and to try to keep him from wandering around the countryside gathering material for his next book.
Helen is a fun narrator; she has a self-confident, matter-of-fact, no-nonsense tone, and she is frequently hilarious. Here’s how the novel opens:
I wonder if there isn’t a lot of bunkum in higher education? I never found that people who were learned in logarithms and other kinds of poetry were any quicker in washing dishes or darning socks. I’ve done a good deal of reading when I could, and I don’t want to “admit impediments” to the love of books, but I’ve also seen lots of good practical folk spoiled by too much fine print. Reading sonnets always gives me hiccups, too.
She is also capable of adventure, although this quality catches her by surprise. When a man drives up to her farm with a wagon full of books claiming that he wants to sell it to Andrew, she realizes she needs to act quickly. The man is Roger Mifflin, and he has spent years traveling around the countryside selling people books from his collection. He has loved his trade, but now he wants to retire to Brooklyn to write the story of his adventures, and he believes he can persuade Andrew to pick up where he is leaving off and become an iterant salesman himself. Worried about being abandoned, Helen makes an impulsive decision and buys the wagon herself, and the next thing she knows, she is off on an adventure, traveling around the countryside selling books herself, with Roger Mifflin for company, at least for a while.
So the novel tells the story of her adventures — how she sees more of the world than she ever had before, sees just how much Roger is in love with books and reading, and learns how transforming books can be.
It’s a light and amusing book, but it argues for a particular way of thinking about reading. Roger Mifflin makes a number of long speeches such as this one about what he is trying to do when he sells books:
You see, my idea is that the common people — in the country, that is — never have had any chance to get hold of books, and never have had any one to explain what books can mean. It’s all right for college presidents to draw up their five-foot shelves of great literature, and for the publishers to advertise sets of their Linoleum Classics, but what the people need is the good, homely, honest stuff — something that’ll stick to their ribs — make them laugh and tremble and feel sick to think of the littleness of this popcorn ball spinning in space without ever even getting a hot-box! And something that’ll spur ‘em on to keep the hearth well swept and the wood pile split into kindling and the dishes washed and dried and put away. Anyone who can get the country people to read something worth while is doing his nation a real service.
It’s the idea of literature pleasing and instructing both — it should be thrilling and fun, and it should also inspire people to be better, more industrious human beings, which will, in turn, make America a stronger country.
Part of the charm of this book is its idealism, and it’s fun to get caught up in the happy mood, even if in my darker moments I don’t buy the idealism at all. The book almost crosses into an irritating naïveté, but it doesn’t quite (for me at least); it is saved by not taking itself too seriously. The humor keeps everything light, and the narrator’s practicality keeps everything in perspective.
And now when I’m in the mood for it, I have the sequel, The Haunted Bookshop to look forward to.