Friday, October 27, 2006

Happily Haunted

Another mental health day off from work today. What better way to spend it than reading The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley? What a delightfully fun book it is too. The final book on my RIP Challenge list turns out to be a mystery rather than a ghost story. The bookshop in the story is called The Haunted Bookshop, but as the proprietor, Roger Mifflin (his original story can be found in Parnassus on Wheels a book I will now have to read), will tell you, the shop is "haunted by the ghosts of all great literature." The best kind of haunting there could possibly be! The dramatis personae of the novel are Roger Mifflin and his wife, Helen, Titania, the daughter of Mr. Chapman who is a rich businessman and booklover who has sent his daughter to work at Roger's shop in hopes of instilling in her a love of books, and Aubrey Gilbert, a young and handsome advertising executive who falls hopelessly in love with Titania. Oh, and Bock, short for Boccacio, the ever faithful dog. The plot of the story turns around Thomas Carlyle's Oliver Cromwell's Letters and Speeches with Elucidations. As the mystery unfolds, we are treated to lots of fun bookishness and wonderful quotable moments like this one:

Living in a bookshop is like living in a warehouse of explosives. Those shelves are ranked with the most furious combustibles in the world--the brains of men. I can spend a rainy afternoon reading, and my mind works itself up to such a passion and anxiety over mortal problems as almost unmans me. Surround a man with Carlyle, Emerson, Thoreau, Chesterton, Shaw, Nietzsche, and George Ade--would you wonder at his getting excited? What would happen to a cat if she had to live in a room tapestried with catnip? She would go crazy!
That's Roger, who farther on says that librarians surrounded by so many more books than he is invented the card catalog as a "soothing device for the febrifuge of their souls" and would go mad if they did not have "the cool and healing card index as medicament." I wonder what librarians do in these card catalog-free times? We are also treated to a discussion of the proper books for a guest room. An observation on how books "track you down and hunt you out." A book can chase you for years before it finally makes you read it. There is an invention of a new word, "librocubicularist," one who reads in bed. And of course, there is the life insurance policy:
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. 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 round, I know it would.
I don't know about you, but I have taken out multiple life insurance policies just to be extra safe. I mean, what if you only had one and then sometime found that for whatever reason that one was the only book available for you to read? What would you do then? Morley has the occasional tendency to break into the story with a little editorializing. Since the book was first published in 1919, most of these intrusions are about the recently concluded war, its horrors and the need to find alternatives to killing each other. But there is also a discussion about the role of the bookseller. Is a bookseller's job to give the customers what they want even if it is commercial tripe? Or is it the bookseller's job to give customers the books they did not know they needed in order to nourish their souls? Morley comes down square on the latter. I found it interesting though that this argument was around even then and that it is not a recent or even new one. I enjoyed The Haunted Bookshop so much I looked up Morley to see if he had any other books. Does he ever! Turns out he has over fifty books of poetry and novels. He was also a Rhodes Scholar, one of the founders of The Saturday Review of Literature, a Shelock Holmes enthusiast and the founder of the Baker Street Irregulars. There is even a park in Long Island named after him. A good amount of his work appears to be out of print, but my blessed public library has a bunch of it. I managed to refrain from requesting it all, wanting to read Parnassus on Wheels first which I already own. In The Haunted Bookshop Roger mentions lots and lots of books. Some of the titles were so outrageous I thought they were made up. But Google tells me they are all real, at least the ones I spot checked. And my library even has one of them which I have requested because how could I not see what The Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac by Eugene Field is all about? Stay tuned.