Friday, April 23, 2010

The Haunted Bookshop

I have just discovered this classic by Christopher Morley. I cannot believe no one brought it to my attention sooner; it is essentially a love letter to books, a tome every bookworm must read. The plot - a spy story and a romance - is really just a framework on which to hang the central character's rhapsodies about the sacred calling of bookselling and the merits of great books.

Alas, this book was written and set at the end of the Great War, and Mr. Morley was one of the many who was misled by the horrors of the Great War into even worse naive folly. Regard this passage, from a letter the bookseller protagonist is writing to his brother-in-law:

You will not agree with me on what I am about to say, for I know you as a stubborn Republican; but I thank fortune that Wilson is going to the Peace Conference. I've been mulling over one of my favourite books--it lies beside me as I write--Cromwell's Letters and Speeches, edited by Carlyle, with what Carlyle amusingly calls "Elucidations." (Carlyle is not very good at "elucidating" anything!) I have heard somewhere or other that this is one of Wilson's favourite books, and indeed, there is much of the Cromwell in him. With what a grim, covenanting zeal he took up the sword when at last it was forced into his hand! And I have been thinking that what he will say to the Peace Conference will smack strongly of what old Oliver used to say to Parliament in 1657 and 1658--"If we will have Peace without a worm in it, lay we foundations of Justice and Righteousness." What makes Wilson so irritating to the unthoughtful is that he operates exclusively upon reason, not upon passion. He contradicts Kipling's famous lines, which apply to most men--

Very rarely will he squarely push the logic of a fact
To its ultimate conclusion in unmitigated act.

In this instance, I think, Reason is going to win. I feel the whole current of the world setting in that direction.

It's quaint to think of old Woodrow, a kind of Cromwell-Wordsworth, going over to do his bit among the diplomatic shell-craters. What I'm waiting for is the day when he'll get back into private life and write a book about it. There's a job, if you like, for a man who might reasonably be supposed to be pretty tired in body and soul! When that book comes out I'll spend the rest of my life in selling it. I ask nothing better!

Of course, we have seen how that worked out.