Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Haunted Library

Lippincott edition;
designed by Warren Chappell
A marvelous old book was discarded and I salvaged it because the title was catchy, The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley.  It had originally been published in 1919 and so it was packed by values and views from another time.  The version I read was by J.B. Lippincott and Company who had reissued Morley's Parnassus on Wheels and its companion, The Haunted Bookshop for the purpose of making them "available in a form appropriate to their enduring and established literary value." (back cover)  The artist was Douglas Gorsline.  

What a delight I had reading it!  Here, written decades before I was born, was the exact defintion of the experience I had when entering the domain of books. A meeting of mind and spirit that is hard to describe and harder for others to understand.  An early practioner of bibliotherapy, ( Bibliotherapy is an old concept in the field of library science.  The ancient Greeks maintained that literature was psychologically and spiritually important, posting a sign above their library doors describing itself as a "healing place for the soul") the colorful bookseller operates by the maxim -"we have what you need, though you may not know you need it."   The shop of the book is housed in a brownstone in a New York of long ago.  "The shop had a warm and comfortable obscurity, a kind of drowsy dusk, stabbed here and there by bright cones of yellow light from green shaded electrics. There was an all-persausive drift of tobacco smoke, which eddied and fumed under the glass lamp shades..."
Art by Douglas Gorsline.
Lippencott editions

The bookseller, in describing to a young visitor  why he does not advertize: "I am not a dealer in merchandise but a specialist in adjusting the book to the human need.  Between ourselves, there is no such thing , abstractly, as a "good book".  A book is 'good' only when it meets some human hunger or refutes some human error.  A book that is good for me would very likely be punk for you.  My pleasure is to prescribe books for such patients as drop in here and are willing to tell me their symptoms. Some people have let their reading faculties decay so that all I can do is hold a post mortem on them. Most are still open to treatment. There no one so grateful as the man to whom you have given just the book his soul needed and he never knew it.  No advertisement on earth is as potent as a grateful customer."

About the books?  "There are only about 30,000 really important books in the world. I suppose about 5,000 of them were written in the English language and 5,000 more have been translated."

The author slips the meaning of the title of the book ship on page 120 (Lippencot edition)  : "That's why I call this place the Haunted Bookshop." Haunted by the ghosts of books I haven't read.  Poor uneasy spirits, they walk and walk around me.  There's only one way to lay the ghost of a book, and that is to read it."

"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 passionand anxiety over mortal problems as almost unmans me.  It is terribly nerve-rcking. Surround a man with Carlyle, Emerson, Thoreau, Chesterton, Shaw, Nietzsche and George Ade - would you wonder at his getting excited?..." (pg. 26)

"The life of a bookseller is a very demoralizing to the intellect...He is surrounded by inumerable books; he cannot possibly read them all; he dips into one and picks up a scrap from another.  His mind gradually fills itself with misellaneous flotsam, with superficial opinions with a thousand half-knowledges.  Almost unconsciously he begins to rate literature according to what people ask for.  .."

1st edition cover
I found myself nodding as I read that because so much of modern book or library related work is based on a premise that what is good is what is currently popular.  This is the candy approach to literature and reading.  People will always seek the sweet, tooth decaying candy before the crunchy green vegatables that are needed to build strong bodies. Should we then only provide candy?  The worst move of modern libraries was to adopt the banner cry, "We are not a warehouse of books!"   If a library is not a repository of human learning, dreaming and thought - what is?

The book is at its most brilliant as it discourses on books and bookshops, to keep other readers engaged it has a mystery, some romance and a dashing younger lead character.   In truth, though, it is the book seller who is and remains the most dynamic character of all.

Image how wonderful it would be if libraries today focused as much on making their spaces 'haunted'?  If once more people, as they entered those doors, were beset with a realization that there were spirits walking around and somewhere there was a book to feed not just the mind but to enthuse the spirit and guide the heart through life?