Parnassus on Wheels

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.

17 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

17 responses to “Parnassus on Wheels

  1. I have this one on my shelves and think it looks like a fun read, too. I wonder which good homely, honest books Roger suggests. Now you’ll have to take more of the Hobgoblin’s suggestions? It’s funny that you both are English professors and teach yet your interests vary so much. It must make for some great discussions. Do you usually agree on the mysteries you read for your group?

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed “Parnassus on Wheels” as well. I’m starting to compile a list of books that I’ve dubbed quality comfort reads–light and entertaining reads with a bit substance underneath–and “Parnassus” fits neatly within it. I’ve not yet read the sequel though I bought a copy ages ago. But now that you’ve reminded me of the charm of the first one, I’m thinking it might be time to embark on the second.

  3. I had to laugh at your description of Hobgoblin’s and your recommendations to each other. Chris and I often do the same thing! But I think both of us will enjoy Parnassus, and I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy.

  4. This sounds a delight! It is such a shame that Christopher Morely is so hard to get hold of in the UK. But there are other sources, of course… I do love books that play with you and are just willing to have some fun in a good cause.

  5. bardiac

    That sounds delightful. Would it be kid appropriate, say for teens?

  6. You and Hobs sound like me and my Bookman when it comes to reading suggestions. I’ve read The Haunted Bookshop and loved it. I had no idea it was a sequel to Parnassus on Wheels which I have not read. Oh well, it doesn’t seem like it is imperative to read them in order.

  7. I so enjoyed The Uncommon Reader. I’ll put this one on my list too. When is it set? Ah I see on amazon–1915. That makes sense with the excerpts.

  8. LK

    Oh, my, this looks too good to pass up!

  9. I have had that and The Haunted Bookshop on the shelf for years… time to bump them up. Thanks for the reminder!

  10. Sounds like a real fun book to read… also reminds me of Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, wherein pig farmers and fishermen formed a book discussion group during WWII. Thanks for this lively review!

  11. This is going straight onto my list! Should I thank you or Hobgoblin? :)

  12. Adveturing booksellers – that does sound lovely and might there possibly be some romance in there too?;)

  13. Danielle — we usually agree pretty well, although not 100%. Maybe 75 or 80%. I’m not sure that we read all that differently when we sit down with the same book, but it’s more that we choose different books to start out with. I do find it amusing that we seldom read the same thing — but that keeps things interesting!

    Kate — that sounds like a wonderful list — I hope you will share it at some point!

    Debby — I’m glad to hear other couples do the same thing :) I really think you both will enjoy Parnassus — and it’s about Connecticut, which is another bonus.

    Litlove — that’s too bad Morley is hard to get a hold of! But yes, it’s such a fun, playful book, and I really like that style as well.

    Bardiac — I think it would be appropriate for teens, although I’m not much of an expert on what young people would like. But my impulse is to say yes.

    Stefanie — I’m glad you loved The Haunted Bookshop so much. I don’t think it’s necessary to read them in order; the first book sets up the circumstances for the second one (from what I understand), but they aren’t closely connected.

    Lilian — yeah, early 19C, and it’s fun to read about the time period, what the countryside was like then. There’s a little bit of mild feminism (sort of — very mild), which is also fun.

    LK — yes, definitely — if it sounds at all appealing to you, I’d definitely recommend it!

    Lisa — I hope you enjoy both books when you get there. I don’t have plans to read The Haunted Bookshop right away, but I’m sure I will at some point.

    Arti — interesting connection to the Guernsey book. I’ll admit to being uncertain about that book, largely because I don’t like the title and it got so much publicity recently, but I probably would enjoy it. I should get past my prejudices!

    Gentle Reader — oh, good! You should probably thank Hobgoblin :)

    Jodie — yes, just possibly!

  14. I read Parnassus on Wheels a couple of years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it!

  15. >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.

    This really made me smile!

    I read The Haunted Bookshop recently after reading about it on your Hobgoblin’s website. I’m planning on reading Parnassus on Wheels this winter sometime.

    >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…

    Yes, I felt this twinge at times with HB, but it was a nice respite from heavy lifting.

  16. Jenclair — I’m glad you enjoyed it; isn’t it great? There seem to be a lot of fans in the comments as well.

    Jane — I’ll save HB until I’m in the mood for something light and uplifting — it will be perfect! I’m glad you enjoyed it so much.

  17. I enjoy both of these books; I am glad you got a chance to read it and that you liked it. It is very much of its period, but delightful in the way that, say, Three Men in a Boat or The Diary of a Nobody were for me. I have both of Morley’s books on my small shelf of permanent keepers that I like to reread.

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