Saturday, June 4, 2011

Parnassus on Wheels - Christopher Morley

Parnassus on Wheels is one of the most charming, funny, delightful books I’ve read in a long time. It’s really a novella, only 80pp long, but there’s a lot of adventure & romance packed into those few pages. Helen McGill keeps house for her brother, Andrew, on their farm in New York State. Andrew was a contented farmer until the day he started to write. His early ambitions had been put aside because of the farm but when Great Uncle Philip dies & leaves the McGills his library, Andrew gradually stops working & starts reading then writing. His books, Paradise Regained & Happiness & Hayseed, are a big success. He’s seen as the successor to Thoreau. So, when Roger Mifflin, known as the Professor, arrives one day with his travelling bookshop, the Parnassus, aiming to sell it to Andrew, Helen is immediately on the attack. The sign on the side of the Parnassus says it all,

Worthy friends, my wain doth hold
Many a book, both new and old;
Books, the truest friends of man
Fill this rolling caravan.
Books to satisfy all uses.
Golden lyrics of the Muses.
Books on cookery and farming,
Novels passionate and charming.
Every kind for every need
So that he who buys may read.
What librarian can surpass us?

To forestall Andrew buying the Parnassus & going off on another of his journeys to find material for his books, Helen decides to buy the Parnassus herself. She finds herself on an adventure that will change her life. Helen has lived on the farm for years, as she says, “and hardly ever been away except for that trip to Boston once a year to go shopping with cousin Edie.” She’s feeling a little unappreciated by Andrew who is absorbed in his writing & occasionally his farm work & takes her for granted. She’s 39 & looking for adventure. She leaves Andrew a note and sets off with the Professor, who is going to show her the ropes for a day or two before he goes home to Brooklyn to write his book, Literature among the Farmers.

Dear Andrew, Don’t be thinking I’m crazy. I’ve gone off for an adventure. It just came over me that you’ve had all the adventures while I’ve been at home baking bread. Mrs McNally will look after your meals and one of her girls can come over to do the housework. So don’t worry. I’m going off for a little while – a month, maybe – to see some of this happiness and hayseed of yours. It’s what the magazines call the revolt of womanhood. Warm underwear in the cedar chest when you need it. With love, Helen.

The Professor is on a crusade. Accompanied by Peg (short for Pegasus) the horse & Bock (short for Boccaccio) the dog, he has travelled the back roads of America taking literature to farmers & small town shopkeepers & their families.

“Lord!” he said, “when you sell a man a book you don’t just sell him twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue – you sell him a whole new life. Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night – there’s all heaven and earth in a book, a real book I mean... And here I go loaded with everlasting salvation... I’m doing something that nobody else from Nazareth, Maine, to Walla Walla, Washington, has ever thought of. It’s a new field, but by the bones of Whitman it’s worth while. That’s what this country needs – more books!”

Well, I can’t argue with that! Helen & the Professor’s adventures include Andrew trying to track them down, tramps stealing the Parnassus & the Professor being thrown into jail. I loved the way Helen tells her story. Her narration is full of funny turns of phrase, “My feelings were as mixed as a crushed nut sundae.”, “We stood in complete dismay – I did, at any rate – for about as long as it takes to peel a potato.” Helen & the Professor fall in love, Andrew accepts that she’s not coming back & they set off for one last tour in the Parnassus before settling down in Brooklyn to open a bookshop & for the Professor to write his magnum opus.

I went straight on to the sequel, The Haunted Bookshop, after finishing Parnassus on Wheels. I have to admit, it was a bit of a disappointment. The freshness of the original has been bogged down with the addition of a plot about German spies (it was published in 1919 at the time of the Versailles Peace Conference) although there are still lots of good things in The Haunted Bookshop, not least being the eponymous bookshop itself. The name of the shop refers to the ghosts of dead writers that haunt its aisles. The professor hasn’t abandoned his crusade, he just waits for passing trade to come to him. The description of avid book lovers in a state of bibliobliss (the Professor’s own description) is familiar to anyone who loves browsing in bookshops. I enjoyed it but it certainly doesn’t have the pace & humour of Parnassus on Wheels. I read both these books on my e-reader, downloaded for free from Manybooks.


  1. You have me intrigued as to how the author could fit all that into only 80 pages. It sounds like a fascinating and delightful premise for a story.

  2. Karyn, POW is a short read but full of incident. It was perfect comfort reading last weekend, cheered me up a lot.

  3. I downloaded this some months ago and then didn't get round to reading it. I can see I've missed a real pleasure. Fortunately, it's still sitting there waiting for me.

  4. I've read both books and LOVED them. Thank you for the reminder, Lyn, that I should probably be reading both books again. What gems!

  5. Annie, downloading free ebooks is a joy, isn't it? POW is short & can be read almost in one sitting. I really enjoyed it. Yvette, POW was recommended to me by a couple of people from my online reading group. How nice that you're another fan!

  6. Lovely reviews, Lyn, and we completely agreed (surprise surprise!) - especially about the disappointment of the sequel. I read them 18 months apart, so my disappointment wasn't quite as sharp.

    But I am surprised that your edition of Parnassus on Wheels has only 80 pages - the one in front of me has 180! But also a big font...

  7. Simon, I read both books on my e-reader but POW was only 80pp. Your font must have been much larger!