Monday, January 7, 2013

Review: The Haunted Bookshop

Christopher Morley’s The Haunted Bookshop (1919) is the sequel to Parnassus on Wheels, which I read (and thoroughly enjoyed) a few months ago.  The pair makes up some of my husband’s favorite works of fiction.  Parnassus on Wheels, the first-person narrative of a bored farmer’s sister who impulsively decides to purchase a traveling book wagon, is so fresh in its writing and relevant in its content that I was astonished to discover that it had been written in 1917.  The Haunted Bookshop, peppered as it is with references to communism, President Woodrow Wilson, and World War I, is a bit more dated.  I enjoyed it as much as its predecessor, though for different reasons.

It’s less charming than Parnassus on Wheels, for one thing, because it’s written in second person, and often from the  vantage point of a fairly clueless and lovestruck young advertiser, instead of from the point of view of a wonderfully straightforward woman discovering her own mind and her own dreams for the first time.  But she’s still present: Helen and her bookselling husband, Roger Mifflin, have graduated from the travelling bookshop and now own a store of their own in Brooklyn.  Don’t you just love that name Mifflin?  Every time I read their last name, it made me think of the giant publishing company Houghton Mifflin.  I wonder if it existed when Morley was writing these novels.

Anyway, the book starts off great and then gets a little silly.  It’s real strength is its meta-commentary.  This is perhaps the greatest book I’ve yet come across to muse on the nature of books, reading, and bookselling.  My husband and I read this novel out loud together, and there were many moments where I’d laugh out loud following a fantastic passage like this one, an excerpt from a meeting of the Corn Cob Club, mainly an excuse for Roger and his bookselling buddies to get together to eat, drink, and discuss their trade (delightfully, this chapter has a footnote reading: “The latter half of this chapter may be omitted by all readers who are not booksellers.”

“You know, Mifflin here calls me a material-minded cynic, but, by thunder, I think I’m more idealistic than he is.  I’m no propagandist incessantly trying to cajole poor innocent customers into buying the kind of book I think they ought to buy.  When I see the helpless pathos of most of them, who drift into a bookstore without the slightest idea of what they want or what is worth reading, I would disdain to take advantage of their frailty.  They are absolutely at the mercy of the salesman.  They will buy whatever he tells them to.  Now the honourable man, the high-minded man (by which I mean myself) is too proud to ram some shimmering stuff at them just because he thinks they ought to read it.  Let the boobs blunder around and grab what they can.  Let natural selection operate.  I think it is fascinating to watch them, to see their helpless groping, and to study the weird ways in which they make their choice.  Usually they will buy a book either because they think the jacket is attractive, or because it costs a dollar and a quarter instead of a dollar and a half, or because they said they saw a review of it.  The ‘review’ usually turns out to be an ad.  I don’t think one book-buyer in a thousand knows the difference.”

Let me add here that Mifflin, the proprietor of the Haunted Bookshop, is far less cynical, and he often waxes eloquent about the lofty role booksellers and books play in the bettering of humankind.  I marked my favorite passage of his:

“For my own part I feel that we are on the verge of amazing things.  Long ago I fell back on books as the only permanent consolers.    They are the one stainless and unimpeachable achievement of the human race.  It saddens me to think that I shall have to die with thousands of books unread that would have given me noble and unblemished happiness.  [Which of us book bloggers don’t feel the same way?]  I will tell you a secret.  I have never read King Lear, and have purposely refrained from doing so.  If I were ever very ill I would only need to say to myself ‘You can’t die yet, you haven’t read Lear.’  That would bring me around, I know it would.”

Unfortunately, Morley seems to realize about halfway through that he hasn’t got much of a plot thus far, and the author isn’t content to go on philosophizing about books for the entirety of the novel.  So he tosses in a mystery of a book that repeatedly disappears and reappears, and has the advertiser, Aubrey Gilbert, prance around in a series of really inept spy activities.  We read through to the end, quite quickly because I wanted to know how the mysteries tied together, but I don’t think I’d ever re-read the entire book.  I will certainly return to it someday, however!  There are too many great passages about books and reading that I’d love to copy out.  The Haunted Bookshop is one of those books worth having around purely for the brilliant first half.

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