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A Book Hunter Reflects On A Book Seller’s Life in Christopher Morley’s “Parnassus On Wheels” and “The Haunted Bookshop”

Myra here.

This is our last week to celebrate books on books/ meta-reading. I thought it would be good for me to share a few of my reflections on these two novels written by Christopher Morley that have been sitting on my shelves for years now, but I only found the time to read now in time for our theme.

Parnassus On Wheels

Written by: Christopher Morley
Published by: A Common Reader Edition: The Akadine Press, 1998. ISBN: 1888173564 (ISBN13: 9781888173567)
Bought my own copy of the book. Book photos taken by me. 

I bought this book at a book sale in the Philippines years ago for less than a dollar, but I knew I had something special in my hands. I think this book found me at the right time when I am seriously contemplating on putting up my own book café of sorts.

The main theme of the story revolves around an elderly, unmarried woman (named Helen McGill) who has given up her entire life taking care of her bachelor writer-brother who spends more time writing his novels than attending to their farm – to purchase this Parnassus on Wheels sold by a charming, red-bearded, book-loving man named Roger Mifflin. He meant to sell his entire traveling bookstore to Helen’s author-brother, but Helen, in a fit of impulsivity, intercepted the transaction and decided right then and there that she deserves to have her own adventure. She called it the “revolt of womanhood” in the letter that she left for her brother, Andrew McGill. After baking 6,000 loaves of bread for her brother, Helen felt that she is entitled to finally see what the world has to offer her.

Roger Mifflin was a most hospitable proprietor, since he also meant to educate Helen with the nuts and bolts of what it means to be a bookseller. According to Mifflin:

When asked how he decides how much each book is worth, this is Mifflin’s response:

Evidently, he feels very strongly about books and reading, so much so that he feels that it is what defines our basic humanity:

Given his love for his craft, one may wonder why Mifflin is giving it all up. Apparently, he means to write his own novels. However, he also has reservations about this:

Mifflin also reflected on the varying tastes of people when it comes to books, and how reading needs to be more accessible to the common person, and how he is determined to let great books reach more people :

Here is another quote that spoke to me – as it shows how reading can make one feel both small and grand at the same time.

Whether Helen McGill returned to her old, comfortable, bread-baking life, I shall leave for you to discover. Will share my book hunter’s notes after writing my thoughts on the second novel.

The Haunted Bookshop

Written by: Christopher Morley
Published by: Wilder Publications, 2007 ISBN: 1604591145 (ISBN13: 9781604591149)
Bought my own copy of the book. Book photos taken by me. 

Tiny confession. I did not like this book as much as I did the first one. I felt that the plot was borderline-absurd, and more like an afterthought to the writer’s meditations on World War II and books and reading. However, I did enjoy knowing more about Helen – who now happens to be Mrs. Mifflin, and Roger’s idealistic notions about bookselling now that he has his own store in Brooklyn, called The Haunted Bookshop. Contrary to what the title suggests, there are no ghosts in this novel. The bookshop is essentially haunted by “the ghosts of all great literature.” Nicely put, right?

This time, Roger shared his musings on how a bookseller’s life can be particularly exciting:

I also loved how he articulated the nightmare of every bibliophile who has his or her own library – the sheer impossibility of reading all the novels in the world that speak to us:

He also does not believe in advertising his merchandise. According to Mifflin:

These reveries on a bookseller’s life are the only things that made me enjoy the novel thoroughly. Here is another one:

And this one:

Everything else about the allusions on Germany, the war, even the insipid nature of Titania and the over-eager, ingratiating, gratuitously-suspicious character of Aubrey Gilbert were annoyances for me that I couldn’t wait to read through. That being said, I wouldn’t know of any book lover who wouldn’t be intrigued enough to read these two Morley novels.

Meditations Of A Book Hunter

I realize now that what probably makes me a tad impatient about bookseller novels is that there is the assumption that without their thoughtful curation of reading materials, the reading populace wouldn’t be able to distinguish between so-called edifying literature from the trashy novels. Even while being well-meaning, there is this high-brow ideation that the bookseller knows more than the book hunter does. I suppose that this is a convenient generalization that affords a certain level of haughtiness to how booksellers regard themselves and their collection.

As a book hunter, I would like to think that I know precisely what I am looking for. My only concern is whether there is some system as to how the books are organized – perhaps according to genre, or alphabetized based on author’s surname, that would allow me to comb through the collection more deliberately. The bookseller’s intentions or their motivations behind arranging the books in a particular way do not matter much to me – what is significant is the relationship that I personally build with the books on the shelves, with the books  allowed to find me, because they speak to me for one reason or another at that point in my life. I am not discounting the importance that the bookseller plays in highlighting important titles. I especially value the little summaries that a few bookstores have, and I naturally appreciate how certain books have been collected together for a reader’s delectation, and I do love booksellers in general. In fact, my actual face-to-face relationship with booksellers show me that most of the novels I have been reading (including The Storied Life of AJ Fikry) fail to do them justice, their presence keenly felt only through the titles displayed on the shelves, or when a key question is asked of them and their responses indicate the breadth and depth of knowledge that they have about books and the authors that a reader may be hunting down.

I suppose the fact that the POV is written from the bookseller’s perspective makes these novels skewed such that all readers are assumed to be passive, unwitting, and without reading intentions of their own that they are also striving to actualize by entering a bookshop, whose treasures they are unearthing because of a certain knowledge that they also possess within them. Perhaps what I am looking for is that valuing of the space between the book hunter and the bookseller that indicates that the reading experience is collaborative in nature.

The idea of someone’s will impinging on me, manipulating me or goading me into purchasing a reading material because I can not be trusted to be left to my own devices is condescending, not to mention patronizing, regardless of how good-natured or well-intentioned it may be. I would rather that there is also a certain respect afforded to the purposive nature of the book hunter as much as a bookseller’s entire collection belies their own personal purpose or intention to share reading materials that they hope would be life-changing to the itinerant reader who browses through their shelves. Instead of regarding it as an “us-versus-them” kind of mentality, I would rather say it’s ours: our very own shared reading experience.

Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

1 comment on “A Book Hunter Reflects On A Book Seller’s Life in Christopher Morley’s “Parnassus On Wheels” and “The Haunted Bookshop”

  1. Bravo – wonderful post.
    And as a librarian, I am nothing more than a bookseller as well, and constantly awed by my ‘customers’ who often have a very developed sense of what they need and want, as well as the ability to make suggestions as to what their fellow students can and should and might read.


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