Novel Conversations is a podcast summarizing the world’s greatest works of classic literature: in 35 minutes you get the whole story from cover to cover. (If SparkNotes had an audio best friend, it would be us!) In each episode, Frank Lavallo hosts two readers, and the three of them give their reactions to the story and read their favorite passages along the way. Each episode features Endnotes by Ted Schwartz, a segment with interesting facts about the author.More episodes
S5 Ep 7
Host: Frank Lavallo
Readers: Elizabeth Flood and Phil Setnik
Author: Christopher Morley
Year of Publication: 1917
Plot: This old-fashioned, sweet novella is about Helen, a governess turned adventurer, who hops on a traveling book-selling wagon as a way to escape the monotony of farm-life. Her brother, Andrew, unexpectedly becomes a celebrity author and leaves Helen chained to chores… until Roger Mifflin shows up with Parnasuss on Wheels and offers her a thrilling life on the road selling books and beyond.
Frank: Hello and welcome. I'm Frank Lavallo and this is Novel Conversations, a podcast about the world's greatest stories. For each episode of Novel Conversations, I talk to two readers about one book; and together we summarize the story for you. We introduce you to the characters, we tell you what happens to them, and we read from the book along the way. So, if you love hearing a good story you're in the right place.
This novel conversation is about Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley, published in 1917. With that said, I'd like to introduce and welcome my guest readers this week Elizabeth Flood and Phil Setnik. Elizabeth, Phil, hello.
Elizabeth & Phil: Thank you for having us back.
Frank: All right. Well great. And welcome. Let's turn to our novel. A little summary about our book today Parnassus on Wheels. It's a story of a marvelous little man, small in stature, wiry as a cat, and yet Olympic and personality Roger Mifflin as part Pixie, part sage, and part noble savage and all God's creature. With his traveling book wagon named Parnassus, he moves through the New England countryside of 1915 on an itinerant mission of enlightenment. Mifflin’s delight in books and authors, if not publishers, is infectious with his singular philosophy and bright eyes, he comes to represent the heart and soul of the book world. So, Phil was this your first time reading Parnassus on Wheels?
Phil: Yes it was. I enjoyed the book.
Frank: Elizabeth I know this was the first time you read it. How about for you?
Elizabeth: It's an easy read; It's very light read, but I don't have a lot of time to devote to reading specifically for pleasure. So, I like to choose a book that I'm really going to be enthralled with and really get lost in, and this, I didn't lose myself in it, but I mean if you have more leisure time maybe in the summer and you can read it it's easy to read what distraction around you.
Frank: I know you want to warn our readers out there to avoid the forward.
Elizabeth: Oh absolutely. If you would pick up the forward and look at this book I don't think many people would go through with it. So, the foreword is in no way a reflection on the book and I suggest to everyone, maybe read it at the end.
Frank: You know Elizabeth, while I agree with you that it's a light read, for me what makes it a book worth reading, well there's actually two things that make it a book worth reading for me: It starts out as one story, you expect it to be, just as I said, a light read about an idyllic journey, couple of people out on the road selling books, but the changes that occur in this novel it moves from a light journey story, to an adventure story, to a romance. For me that made it very interesting and made me want to keep turning the pages to see where it was going to go next. And then of course, the numerous references to authors and other books throughout this book had me running to my dictionaries, had me running to my author biographies, my history of the novels; I wanted to find out what these other books were, what the references meant, how they may or may not have related to the story we were reading within Parnassus on Wheels. So, while I will agree with you a light read, certainly light read worth reading.
Frank: Now, let’s talk about the main character; and the main character in this novel really isn't a character at all. It's Parnassus. Phil, do you want to tell me who Parnassus or what Parnassus is.
Phil: Well, Parnassus is a van pulled by a horse. It's a custom-made van that's filled with books on both sides. It's the center of the one character Roger Mifflin, it's the center of his world, while he's out in the countryside. His books are there, his tools of the trade are there, he lives inside and Parnassus is made up of the wagon the horse, the dog, it's all a package deal - which even in the book is how he sells it as a package deal - but it's his vehicle, in both senses his vehicle, to touch base with people.
Frank: Sort of a precursor to today's bookmobiles.
Phil: Right. Absolutely.
Frank: And he goes from farm to farm, as I said in 1915 or so, in the New England area, Connecticut. He seemed to be around Long Island Sound. And he goes from farm to farm and he opens up his wagon; or maybe he'll pull into a town and he opens up his wagon and really what he wants to do with these books is get them in other people's hands.
Phil: Right. He's not out to become a millionaire. He's out to get these books, and like you said, in people's hands. People who would ordinarily not be exposed to these books. And what better way to do it than a van that (in and of itself) draws attention. The lettering on the side of the van, he opens the flaps up the books; I mean it's a magnet for people. And in his style his character, he just puts these books out there for people who would ordinarily probably never see them.
Elizabeth: But also, it's just not any book. These books are hand-picked by him and he wants to take out of their hands books that they're reading that are sold maybe by a different traveling salesman that are just dull and boring and; odes to the dead, is that what they were reading?
Frank: Well we'll talk about that. Yeah. Collections of funeral orations was what the travelling book salesman of the time were pushing on their unsuspecting customers. And he would go into these farms and see these 20 volume sets of funeral orations (Elizabeth: Right.) And those would be the only books that the farmhouse had.
Elizabeth: So he was more interested in getting the parents to value reading, and then getting the children to love to read.
Frank: You know I got to admit usually when we have these conversations I just want to stay between the covers of the book I'm not interested in what the critics have to say. We're really not even interested in what the author says about his book. What's important is what the book said to us and what we got out of it. But because my Greek mythology is not so good I did have to go to a dictionary and get a definition for Parnassus. And Phil I understand you also went to the dictionary definition.
Phil: Yeah of course I had no idea what Parnassus was. In the dictionary it's a mountain in Greece; and it's also a center of artistic and poetic activity, which is apropos.
Frank: In fact, in the dictionary ‘Parnassian’ is made an adjective and the definition there is ‘of or relating to poetry; a member of a school of late nineteenth century French poets whose work is characterized by detachment an emphasis on metrical form.’ But I think the real definition, as you said, it's a mountain in central Greece north of the Gulf of Corinth and in ancient times it was sacred to Apollo; the Delphi Oracle was at the foot of the mountain where the Greeks were looking for prophecies and that's why they would go to the Oracle. All right I'm glad we talked about Parnassus but that's really not how our novel starts. Elizabeth, the first character we meet is Helen McGill. She's our narrator and she starts telling us that this is going to be her story.
Elizabeth: Helen was a single woman in her home near 40. (Frank: Yeah I think she was about 40) Elizabeth: Right. And she was a governess. Her brother came and pulled her out of that so that she wouldn't have to do that. And they bought a farm together and she took care of the cooking and most of the chores while he was doing - sometimes chores and sometimes just leaving for weeks at a time - to collect information to write. I thought she was more the main character than the Parnassus but it was interesting to me that the two of you think the Parnassus is the story; but to me, it's her story because all these things touch her life.
Frank: Was Helen one of the characters you had some empathy for?
Elizabeth: No, which is my problem with the book. I guess, not saying Parnassus as the main character, I read it with Helen being the main character and she was just forgettable. She was around all the time and you weren't really worried about what she thought or what she wanted because she was just a fixture and that's how her brother traded her; not to be unkind to her but, he just took her presence for granted, took her for granted.
Frank: Well Phil, let's talk a little bit about Andrew McGill. He doesn't start out as a writer. He decides to move to this farm to get away from the city life and he really wants to be a farmer, not even a gentleman farmer, he wants to get his hands dirty. But slowly over time he starts writing some articles, eventually becomes a published author, and that's really where the problems occur between him and his sister right.
Phil: He did have a literary background. He was an editor (Frank: At the school newspaper I think) Phil: Right. It was important to their life that they read they had a magazine that they subscribe to: Farms. I can't remember the name of the magazine. They had serial stories in the magazine and he and Helen would read the stories and it was important to them. It was in their lives, literature; and he becomes inspired to convert the henhouse to his study.
Frank: There was actually a defining moment that that spark occurred for him. I believe an uncle passes away (Phil: Right.) And both he and Helen receive a truckload of books.
Phil: Again, living in a farm in New England at the time, they're somewhat isolated. They don't have much on hand so they have Farm and Fireside magazine they'll read that and then, like you said, they get this allotment of books from an uncle. (Frank: A whole library.) Phil: Right. And that encourages him and inspires him and he converts the henhouse to his study. And the next thing Helen knows is that she’s mailing a parcel which is his manuscript, that he had wrote a book. And as far as Andrew is concerned, Helen is being taken advantage of. But in the end, he supports her. He becomes a published author, successful, and she's his gatekeeper. She screens out all the other publishers and only accepts the checks that come in from the publisher that he's been dealing with. But he's the successful of the two.
Frank: But it's the success and the continuing interest that Andrew has in books that causes a rift basically to develop between he and his sister. (Phil: Right.) She feels put upon she's staying at home. She's got to do all the cooking. She describes the meals that she cooks three meals a day. (Phil: Right.) Some of the food and the amount of food that she describes as amazing.
Elizabeth: And we hear that from Phil at night as well. (Phil: Right.) Is that made you breakfast. (Phil: Exactly.)
Frank: So now where we have our characters, where we have Andrew and Helen, basically, Andrew is now a successful published writer. There is this rift growing between the brother and sister. Helen feels put upon feel she has no life of her own. As you said she's the custodian or gatekeeper for her brother.
Phil: And it wasn't the deal she signed on with. Exactly she was going on a farm with Andrew he was working the fields and she was doing the housework and all of sudden he becomes an author, leaves for weeks at a time, and she's left holding the bag. And it wasn't the deal that she signed on with.
Frank: All right. And then one day, everything changes.
Phil: Well, in pulls Roger Mifflin with his Parnassus pulled by his white horse to Helen McGill and Andrew McGill's farm.
Frank: But he's not here to sell them a book is he?
Phil: His intent is to sell Andrew the whole kit and caboodle: Parnassus his wagon, the horse, the books, the dog; everything to Andrew. He calls him the sage. The sage of Redfield. His intention is that this man will do Parnassus justice.
Frank: He, of course, has become familiar with Andrew by reading the books that Andrew had written. (Phil: Right.) So when Parnassus pulls up, Mifflin gets out, he introduces himself to Helen, says I'm here to sell my wagon to Andrew McGill. And how does Helen take that?
Elizabeth: She panics because she knows that the Parnassus is perfect for him; that's everything that he ever wanted. He already goes away for weeks and weeks at a time to collect more material for his books and she knows that if he had this wagon that had all his basic necessities on it including shelves and shelves of books that he may not come back for years. And she thinks now you have to leave. He will buy this you can't stay here.
Frank: Her only thought is I've got to get this guy in his wagon out of here before my brother gets home.
Elizabeth: Right. Because she knows exactly when to expect him back from town because she's making one of his favorite meals; so she has a small window of time where she has to get rid of him.
Frank: But I'm gonna say, fortunately for Helen, fortunately for Mifflin, and fortunately for Andrew, that does not happen.
Frank: Elizabeth as you said, Helen panics, doesn't want her brother to get his hands on this wagon, go off and leave her alone on the farm. What's her solution to her problem?
Elizabeth: Well first, she tried to get him off the property, but he said, ‘I'll go, but I'm just gonna wait down the road because I know what direction he's coming from.’ So, she starts to barter with him and she ends up buying the Parnassus herself in order to keep it from her brother. Which brings another host of problems since she has to grab all her things, arrange for the finishing of his meal (because it's still cooking), arrange for care of the house; and then she jumps in and she takes off and she travels down the road and leaves.
Frank: That's right. She's not just going to buy this wagon she's going to buy the entire Parnassus experience; she's going to get the horse, the dog, but she's also going to go out on the road and sell these books.
Elizabeth: She has to, if she doesn't get this Parnassus away from him, she knows that he'll take it. So it leads her to this extreme move.
Phil: Right. But I think the motivation in the beginning, is that classic gatekeeper, she's keeping this away from her brother and then we'll see gradually how she buys into it and decides, ‘I can do this!’
Frank: Well let's talk about how her motivations change. As Elizabeth said she basically jumps in the wagon and heads on down the road with Roger Mifflin. (Elizabeth: And his dog.) They stop at a few farms and she starts to watch and observe how Roger Mifflin sells these books, talks to the farmers, talks to the trades people, goes into the farmhouse and sees (as we mentioned before) sees that all these farm houses have, are collections of funeral orations, or other topics that they're just not going to read. Were you surprised at all with the ease that Helen just basically jumps into a wagon and heads on down the road.
Phil: No. Because Roger is such a powerful character. He's a classic salesman and he sells Helen, he sells the farmers, he sells them all because he's so convinced that he's doing the right thing and she buys into it - I bought into it. I mean he's very convincing. He's great at persuasion and she buys into it.
Frank: And really though, this is where the story changes, it starts out - at least for me - it seemed almost idealistic. Who wouldn't want to - I know I would - get into a van and spend the summer riding around selling books, talking to people about books. But as their journey begins, things start to change, and for me, it was really strange. I expected one kind of novel and next thing I know I'm an adventure novel and then I don't want to give too much away. But by the end of the book I was in a love story. What occurs on the road that changes our little idyllic story into more of an adventure?
Phil: Well I guess the first thing is that Roger tells Helen that he will stay on for a day. She'll get him to a time where he can get a train back to Brooklyn. His intent is to write a book.
Frank: Yeah tell us about Roger. I forgot to bring up his motivation, why does he want to sell Parnassus?
Phil: Well Roger, after making a name for himself in the New England area, wants to go back to Brooklyn to his brother's house and write his book. He has the great American novel in his head and he needs to get it out in order to do that, he has to get away from Parnassus - which has been his life for years.
Frank: So, he promises Helen, he'll take her on the road, show her the ropes, get her started but then she's got to drop him off at a train station so he can head to Brooklyn. (Phil: Right.) How does that work out?
Phil: Well he leaves. But I think it is a hard decision for Roger to make. He leaves Helen with the wagon, with the books, but follows her.
Elizabeth: It's too much information to train her in a day; like the code that they use for how to sell the books that they use the word manuscript. And they how to price the books. And also, we keep saying that he's selling the books but before actually selling the books he makes sure that the book fits the needs of the family. And he really educates them on different choices, of what to read, and he makes sure that they're able to understand the book.
Phil: But that's salesmanship. He goes in and surmises what the need is and then fills it.
Frank: But there was a point where someone wanted a particular book and he wouldn't sell them that particular book, is that correct?
Elizabeth: Right and refused to get one of his best customers a Shakespeare because he didn't think he was ready.
Phil: But again, that's the mark of a good salesman. He could surmise his customer, give them what they want, and leads them to want more. You're not ready for it now. Maybe next time.
Frank: I'll take this book now. (Phil: Absolutely) Then I'll come back and sell you another one later.
Phil: I've seen guys like this. I've seen Rogers, I've met Rogers who are great salesmen who can surmise a situation, fill needs, have them hanging on to his words and have them want him to come back.
Frank: But let's be honest, this is really not only about money for Roger Mifflin. We wants to get the right book into the right people's hands. He wants to make a couple of dollars.
Elizabeth: He really only wants to make enough to keep going.
Phil: To get by, but nonetheless, just by his experience by having to do this all the time makes him a great salesman; makes him a great craftsman, at talking to people having conversations surmising needs and filling those needs. He's a classic salesman.
Frank: But Elizabeth as you said, this is not anything he can teach Helen in one day or even into two days (Elizabeth: No.) when their together, before she attempts to drop him off at the train station. So, when he does finally send her out on her own, even he's not sure she can handle this job. So, Phil as you said, he follows her for another day or two, and that's really when this story changes (Phil: Right) and becomes an adventure story.
Phil: She gets lost in a storm and drives off the main road and she's going towards a quarry. Her horse throws a shoe, she's on a rough road and she ends up camping - unbeknownst to her - near a quarry that is home to some hobos in the area. And that's where the adventure begins.
Frank: We're in the middle of the night, we're in the middle of a rainstorm. All of a sudden the dog starts barking…
Elizabeth: And she can hear a scuffle and she actually listens to a fight and you learn later that the fight is Roger coming back and beating up the hobos and chasing them away from the Parnassus.
Frank: But they do run into even more trouble. Mifflin is able to scare off the first hobo but then as they go down the road to find the shoe for the horse, they come back. Low and behold, Parnassus is gone. (Elizabeth: Right.) They follow the tracks of the horse and they find their Parnassus in the middle of a gang of hobos.
Elizabeth: And they're having breakfast with all of these stores from the wagon.
Frank: But then while Helen and Roger are watching these hobos devour their breakfast, they're surprised by another hobo. And now into our I idealic little story, a gun appears.
Phil: Right, as the hobo with the gun is picking up Roger, it's Helen who helps to disarm this hobo and Roger gets the gun away from him. Marches this hobo down to the group of other hobos and scares a lot of them off at gunpoint.
Frank: And actually there's a great little passage there where Helen describes what happens to the ruffian, or the hobos, got the gun on Roger, and it's Helen who springs to action. “He bent over as if to grab Mifflin by the neck. I saw my chance and jumped on him from behind. I am heavy as I have said and he sprawled on the ground. My doubts as to the pistol being loaded were promptly dissolved. For it went off like a cannon. No one was in front of it however and Mifflin was on his feet like a flash. He had the ruffian by the throat and kicked the weapon out of his hand. I ran to seize it.” So really now we've got an adventure story: There's guns, there's hobos, there's danger, there's fighting. The story is changing rapidly I intimated, that it eventually turns into a love story.
Elizabeth: And we miss the whole section where Andrew comes to get her.
Frank: Well tell me about that. Andrew finds out she's run off with a travelling book salesman…
Elizabeth: And he starts to track her down and for proprieties sake, she's sleeping overnight at ends and he is calling to see if he can find her. Has she been there? He's checking her down. And they are in the middle of the road and he comes upon them and then there's another fight.
Frank: And this time it's Roger and Andrew.
Elizabeth: Right. Because Andrew thinks that she's being taken advantage of. He's sure that she's not in her right mind and he needs her to come back. And she refuses.
Phil: Andrew sees his world crumbling.
Frank: His gatekeeper is gone.
Phil: Right. Not only is his gate keeper gone, his cook is gone. I mean he finds out that what he had taken for granted, is his whole world and he's going out to bring her back. And that's what will lead us into the next adventure with Roger - is that Andrew, even having lost the fight to Roger, still continues on his quest to get Helen back and will convince the bank that Palin's check was bad that she's been deceived and that ultimately gets Roger put in jail.
Frank: Right. Roger ends up in jail. Helen thinks she's put him on a train heading in Brooklyn and he's in jail. She does find out that he's in jail and she does go and rescue him.
Phil: Right. And that's when a romance starts to bud as Helen goes back for her man.
Frank: You know again, as I said before, the adventure part of this story caught me by surprise and then all of a sudden the love story caught me by surprise. Helen quickly realized that she's in love with Roger, makes her emotions known, Roger asks her to marry him. And now we've got a love story. It was not the story I started out reading.
Phil: Right. And again as far as Helen's concern, Helen's a woman of chance opportunity. Here comes Parnassus. It's a chance. She takes it; and now she's found herself in something that she's suited for. And here again meets another guy, here's a spinster (at the time a spinster of thirty-nine) another chance. Here, there's an eligible bachelor enjoys his company and falls in love with him. So, two opportunities for Helen. And she's taking advantage of both of them.
Frank: Okay. We've set this story as having some adventure, having some romance but I do want to get back to what I thought the original story would be and I want to talk about some of the books that are on the swag; in this book Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley is full of references to other books - certainly only books written before 1915 or so of the time of our novel. But there's author after author mentioned, book after book mentioned. Elizabeth, as you said he mentioned Shakespeare, (Elizabeth: Robinson Crusoe, Little Women). Robert Lewis Stevenson is mentioned. One real interesting passage that comes to mind is actually right after this little adventure with the hobos and the guns, they mentioned Don Quixote drawing a parallel between some of the actions of Roger towards Helen and the character and Don Quixote.
Phil: And even the Greek reference to Parnassus itself. He mentions Apollo when he's fighting with the hobos. It's chalk full of these references.
Frank: But he doesn't have very good feelings towards the publishers of these novels, does he?
Phil: Because Roger again, his intent is not to become a millionaire. His intent is to get books in the hands of people who wouldn't ordinarily have. Publishers meanwhile, have set price guides when they're selling their books and Roger sells them for a fraction of that.
Elizabeth: And he also prices them by merit. If there's an expensive book and he feels that it's not a fantastic book then he'll price it down.
Phil: Again. Back to his book selling ability. That's a great example of that because not only does he filter out books that are inappropriate for certain customers, if a book is say, in his judgment bad, and it maybe helped him a bargain on that one, if he sells it at all.
Frank: Perhaps the most interesting illusion for me was DeCameron by Bochco.
He named the dog after the author. The publisher of Andrew's books is Cameron and Jones. I'm only somewhat familiar with that work. It's basically an Italian version of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, it's the Tales of Ten Travelers. Do you have any more familiarity with the camera?
Phil: No. As a matter of fact most of the references made in this book were… (Elizabeth: Right over his head.) (chuckles)
Frank: But not the references to bookselling. I think we just touched on it a little bit before that you also did some door to door bookselling. I also had a lot of experience working as a bookseller in bookstores. So, guys, what I would like from you now is I'd like to know if there is a favorite moment or a favorite line in the book. Phil what have you got for us?
Phil: Well I think one of the best parts in the book is when Helen is in the back of the wagon while Roger is pulling into a small town called Greenbrier. The wagon itself draws attention. So, people come around the wagon. Meanwhile Helen is inside sleeping. She wakes up to the sound of Roger at his craft. He throws open the flaps, exposing the books to the people they come around and she has the opportunity to see him at his best; selling books talking to people. He's a likable character. He's a likable personality and he draws people in. And the books speak for themselves.
Frank: Well, but the books don't only speak for themselves. Not only is Roger a likable character he makes the books likable as well.
Phil: Oh absolutely. Again, he's filling this need. He brings these people and he lets them talk, he listens to them, he talks to them, and Helen gets to see this kind of detached. Apart. She's watching from the background. I think one of the best things when Roger says, “The man that's got a few good books on his shelf, is making his wife happy, giving his children a square deal and he's likely to be a better citizen himself. How about that Parson?” I mean this is a great salesman right there. He's romancing these books. It's everything to him and he wants it to be everything for them.
Frank: Elizabeth, do you have a moment or a line you want to share?
Elizabeth: I thought the letter that she left for him when she initially left the house was interesting where she wrote, “Dear Andrew, don't be thinking I'm crazy, I've gone off an adventure. It just came over me that you've had all the adventures while I've been at home baking bread. Mrs. McNally we'll look after your meals and one of our girls can come over to do the housework, so don't worry I'm going off for a little while maybe a month, maybe, to see some of the happiness and hayseed of yours. It's what the magazines call the ‘Revolt of Womanhood.’ Warm underwear is in the cedar chest in the spare room when you need it. With Love. Helen.” I thought it was funny that even though she is revolting against her life, she's still telling him where to find the warm underwear.
Frank: Very good. For me, a big part of the enjoyment of this book was the references to other works, to other authors. But there are a couple lines here that I would like to read. At one point, Helen is reading something that Roger Mifflin wrote: “There are three ingredients in the good life; learning, earning, and yearning. A man should be learning as he goes; and he should be earning bread for himself and others; and he should be yearning too. Yearning to know the unknowable.” And that's part of why we have these novel conversations, so that we can learn, and we yearn to know the unknowable. One other part that I really enjoyed, the professors asked: “What do you mean by a great book?”
Elizabeth: Or the fact that he's called Professor. I think it's interesting that as he goes from town to town, he is known by his craft, but he's also known as the professor; and by giving him that title they show that they appreciate him.
Frank: For many of these farmers, that's the highest title they can give someone. (Elizabeth: Absolutely.) But here's what the Professor defines as a good book or as a great book: “A good book ought to have something simple about it. And like Eve it ought to come from somewhere near the third rib. There ought to be a heart beating in it a story that's all forehead, doesn't amount to much.” And I think that's true. There needs to be some heart, and there was some heart in this book. That's the part that surprised me. I thought it was gonna be a book about a guy who loves to sell books, he goes door to door. But this little story, this sweet little story, had a heart to it and becomes, as I said, a romance - becomes an adventure - becomes quite a different story. All right Phil we've teased our audience long enough about the some of your experiences as a door to door book salesman. Is there anything you can compare or contrast with your experiences with Helen's or with Rogers?
Phil: Well I definitely identified with Roger going door to door. I did door to door selling in the summer of eighty-eight. (Frank: What were you selling?) I was actually selling a two-volume textbook set, to replace the conventional encyclopedias, to help kids with schoolwork. I was in Arkansas. I lived in southern Arkansas for a summer, and I worked in northern Louisiana, we were right on the border and we were selling, mostly books to help kids with their studies in school; also encyclopedias just deal with straight facts but this is a book that dealt with mathematics and advanced mathematics, at that, science, physics chemistry, biology. It went through history, it had inserts in it; it was not a complete text but enough to help a kid who's struggling in certain subjects. (Frank: How did it go for you?) Well you know the good thing about it I realize, as I'm saying, you're talking about, I'm still selling the book and I mean, I’ve been apart from that for so long. But through the course of that summer I've run in to Roger Mifflins. I worked these guys who were nonstop, they're always on the go, always selling that book, and in the end, we're trying to help people. We're trying to give them something that they didn't have, something to help their kids, but it was a constant thing. We'd run into people in the stores and they were selling. We had out of state plates, all of us didn't live in that area, and we all talked differently. Everybody who I met, said that I talked like an anchor man. So, they knew you weren't from around there. Plus, we were dealing with very small towns. Everyone knew each other so they knew when there was a stranger in town, and these guys sold all the time from, dawn to dusk. These guys were on the go and it was funny. We've had adventures, I mean, I run into the law while I was down there. I mean I had houses where people were literally holding the book upside down. I mean the great thing about it was that this was in the late 80s and it wasn't too far gone from the scene in this book. When you're in these rural settings that has not changed much from 1915 to the late 80s. These farms are isolated. The towns itself are very isolated and you run into people who are literary poor. They have nothing on their shelves. Very little interest in it. In her ideal setting, where she goes off on her own, as a female selling these books and sleeping in a van, that's possible that's still possible today. I was doing it. I was going off and I was invited for dinner. I could stay at different places. It was easy to do.
Frank: You know I've got to tell you, my bookselling experiences, of course, were very different - me being in bookstores. The people come into the bookstore expecting, or knowing, that they want to buy a book. I can't imagine knocking on a door and trying to convince someone to buy something they had no idea they really needed. How did that work? Did you have a pitch or a script?
Phil: I did everything off the cuff. When you walk into a house, you have no idea who's in that house. But if you see toys in the yard, you know there's kids there. Then you start telling them that you're trying to help out these kids with their education, you're trying to help out the people in the schools, and people are interested in that. It was amazing to me that people let me in their house, and what they did, as soon as I got the first one, the rest fell like dominoes, because then I'd ask him who else has kids on the street. And they'd tell me ‘Oh that House does and Oh that house does’ What are their names? So then on the next house I'd go, and I'd know their kids names, I know their names, and said ‘Oh yeah, you have Bobby and Sally here, are they the local schools? Well I'm here to help.’ And they'd open the door.
Frank: What about selling only one title. Again, for me in the bookstores, it was great because I had the opportunity to sell every kind of book. Some people would come in looking for a good cookbook, Italian, or Chinese. They come in looking for a book of poetry, they wanted a good biography, of a good historical novel. You were really only selling the one title.
Phil: Right. I guess the logistics of having a real Parnassus is a little more difficult. I had a Chevy Monza, so I had a couple of books in my trunk and that was about it. And I would sell them right there on the spot. I'm unloading inventory right there at their door. That was a little more restricting, but the idea was the same where it was the constant vigilance on a potential sale.
Frank: You mentioned that you turned your Chevy Monza into a Parnassus?
Elizabeth: And that would be my Chevy Monza, let’s get that straight (chuckle)
Phil: Yeah, I borrowed it from Elizabeth.
Frank: If you had a Parnassus today, give me two or three titles that would have to be on your Parnassus, Elizabeth?
Elizabeth: Well we're still enthralled by Despereaux, t's one of the newest Newbery Award winners. I'm reading it in my classroom. My daughter's read it over Christmas break. (Frank: And the Newbery Award is?) It’s given to children's books one every year.
Phil: Right. And that's the Tales of Despereaux. It is a great book.
Elizabeth: It's fantastic. It's a story within a story; there's three different stories in it and then were huge Harry Potter fans so we would always have those on our Parnassus too.
Frank: And of course, Phil your Parnassus would have some cookbooks, right?
Phil: Yes, probably.
Elizabeth: I bake, I do do the baking. I have a great pie book that would probably take, brownie pie is excellent.
Frank: Yes. What other books would you have.
Phil: A book that really changed me was The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham. From the moment I read that in high school, til this day, I read it several times and it's changed me every time; and I would have to have The Sun Also Rises, probably an atlas, and probably a book on world history.
Frank: Great. I like the idea of the atlas and the book on world history. My Parnassus would have the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. It's basically, you might call it, a primer on the Stoic philosophy. It's a book that every time I read I get something out of it. I would also have to include Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. For me, the quintessential first great American novel. And then like you, I think I would want some nonfiction, some history books, something to keep me company around those long nights out on the road with our Parnassus. Well, that ends our novel conversation on the novel Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley. I'd like to thank our readers, Elizabeth Flood and Phil Setnik for being here.
Phil & Elizabeth: Thank you for having us, Frank.
Frank: You've been listening to Novel Conversations.
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Novel Conversations was produced by Julie Fink and engineered by Sean Rule-Hoffman, Eric Koltnow and Dave Douglas. And a special thanks to our Executive Producer, Joan Andrews. I'm your host, Frank Lavallo, until next time, I hope you find yourself in a Novel Conversation.
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