I recently read two novels about traveling bookshops. The first book is Parnassus on Wheels (1917) by Christopher Morley and the second is The Little Paris Bookshop (2013) by Nina George.
Parnassus on Wheels is the story of Helen McGill, a single woman in her late thirties who lives on a farm with her brother. When a traveling bookseller named Roger Mifflin tells her that he wants to sell his wagon and its many books so he can go back to New York, she decides to buy it and to set out on an adventure. Not only does she find adventure, she also finds love. Roger has a knack for finding out what books people might want to read and then pulling out an appropriate book from his vast collection. Helen tries to duplicate Roger’s technique with varying results.
One of the many funny incidents in the novel occurs when Helen tries to sell books to various people who say they don’t need any more books because they recently bought a 20 volume set entitled The World’s Great Funeral Orations from another traveling bookseller.
The Little Paris Bookshop is the story of Jean Perdu (literally John Lost) who specializes in finding out what people need to read for their wellbeing and then insisting that they purchase only the books he recommends. He has a gift for determining what books others need to read to heal their wounded psyches, but is unable to heal himself from the crippling loss of his lover who left him 21 years before the events in the novel. Jean, like Helen McGill, has a mobile bookshop. His is on a barge in the Seine River in Paris. After he finally reads a letter his lover had sent him shortly after she left, Jean decides to travel on his barge to the town where she lived. He, like McGill, has many adventures along the way and finally finds peace and love. This novel is much more complex that Morley’s novel and much more graphic.
Both novels, but especially The Little Paris Bookshop, are about something called “bibliotherapy“: the idea that reading books about a problem you have can actually heal you. Jean Perdu is definitely more than a bookseller, he is a “bibliotherapist.”
The idea of books being a therapeutic tool is not new. In fact, it goes all the way back to ancient Greek times. An inscription above the door of the library at Thebes announced that therein was “Medicine for the Soul.” The word “bibliotherapy” was not coined, however, until essayist Samuel Crothers recommended that books be used as therapy in a 1916 Atlantic Monthly article. In that article Crothers described his proposed treatment technique and named it “bibliotherapy.” While some embrace the idea of books as a therapeutic tool, many others dismiss it as being useless – and a possible source of malpractice law suits.
In an appendix in The Little Paris Bookshop, Nina George, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, lists books that she thinks could be useful in curing your emotional maladies. It is titled “Jean Perdu’s Emergency Literary Pharmacy: From Adams to Von Arnim,” and is described as, “fast-acting medicines for minds and hearts affected by minor or moderate emotional turmoil.” She goes on to say that it is, “to be taken in easily digestible doses (between five and fifty pages) unless otherwise indicated and, if possible, with warm feet and/or with a cat on your lap.”
Below are a few of her recommendations:
Barbery, Muriel. The Elegance of the Hedgehog. An effective cure in large doses for if-such-and-such-happens-ism. Recommended for unacknowledged geniuses, lovers of intellectual films, and people who hate bus drivers.
Cervantes, Miguel de. The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha. To be taken when your ideals clash with reality. Side effects: Anxiety about modern technology and about the destructive effects of machines, which we fight as though they were windmills.
Lindgren, Astrid. Pippi Longstocking, trans. Tony Ross. Effective against acquired (rather than innate) pessimism, and a fear of miracles. Side effects: Diminished numeracy skills; singing in the shower.
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. To overcome adult worries and rediscover the child within.
You may find Parnassus on Wheels (which is in the public domain) a bit trite, but it’s an easy, fun book to read. The Little Paris Bookshop is much more substantive.