A Most Enticing Gospel: Reflections on Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley

parnassus-on-wheelsIn case you haven’t figured it out (and if you haven’t, you’re blind), I love books.  Although this blog is called “Everything is Theology,” it’s very much more a book blog than it is a theology blog. We can discuss my naming choices another day, though; just know for now that I have a love affair with books that, should my wife (God forbid) meet her untimely demise, it would eventually fill the void and I would wind up on Hoarders because my house would suddenly become FULL of books.

In many ways, Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley is about that crazy, wild love of books that some people think is just weird.  There are many people who like to read.  They have some novels that they received as Christmas gifts, a library card, maybe even a bookshelf in their home.

Then there are those of us who don’t have enough shelves for books.  We go to the library to return books and can’t help coming home without four or five more. Our friends and family know they’re going to get books from us for Christmas because we really cannot imagine a better gift for them (and we wonder why people give us anything other than books). We know that in books lie the key to the universe and every last corner of it.  It is our doctrine and our Gospel to spread, and we are proud evangelists.

Parnassus on Wheels is about that Gospel.  It’s the story of a woman who owns a farm with her brother.  When her brother becomes a published writer and begins traveling to find new things to write about, she gets left with the farm.  One day, a man with a large horse and wagon (which he calls a “traveling parnassus,” a reference to Mt. Parnassus of Greek Mythology, where the Muses lived) comes to the farm, looking for her brother.  He’s not home, so the woman (her name is Helen) asks what his business with her brother is.  The man (Mr. Mifflin) is looking to sell Parnassus to him, a traveling van from which he sells books.  Helen, already tired of seeing her brother gone for weeks at a time, decides to put a stop to such a sale and…buy Parnassus herself.

This may not seem like much to you, but perhaps I should also tell you that this book was originally published in 1917, at a time where women were still mostly confined to the home, so there’s a certain amount of surprise here when she buys the Parnassus.  Mr. Mifflin accompanies her for a long enough time that he can teach her all about the vehicle and selling books.  During that time, you find that Mifflin is a preacher of books, saying things like:

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.

The rest of the book is the adventures of these two traveling the countryside, preaching the gospel of books.

Much as I would like to, I will not be buying a tour bus and converting it into a traveling parnassus of my own (but wouldn’t that just be AWESOME?).

Mr. Mifflin proclaims in the story that this country needs more books, and I could not agree more.  It pains me to see people not read.  I remarked on a friend’s blog last night that I actually have difficulty trusting those who claim they don’t read much.  I understand it is a sign of our times, but perhaps it is a sign of something deeper, what I think is a disconnect from the pursuit of knowledge and beauty that other men and women have found in the world, all because it hasn’t been made into a movie or a TV show.  Now, one form of media isn’t superior to another, but when our primary pursuit as a species is entertainment instead of enlightenment, it signals to me that we have lost our first loves: curiosity and ingenuity.

I think Christopher Morley saw this in his time, and wanted to again inspire people to read and know more.  He also saw that pursuit of knowledge and understanding is an egalitarian pursuit, showing this by making Helen the protagonist (apparently a rebuff of another author, who took trips like the brother does without considering his sister’s opinion and perspective).  We often forget that, being all in this thing we call life together, that we really can learn from one another, regardless of gender.  Women weren’t supposed to be curious and impulsive in Morley’s time, so it’s pretty cool to see Helen take charge of her life in this book.

Anyway, this book belongs on any book lover’s shelf.  Go get yourself a copy!


EDIT: I feel like it’s worth mentioning that this book came from a Quarterly Package from the Book Riot podcast.  Seriously, order yourself one of these; they’re awesome!


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