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readerPursuing a liberal education takes a lifetime. School may not be fun some of the time and for a few of us, all of the time, but what I have learned from Fr. James Schall, S.J. over the years is that a liberal education does not take place at school, but for most of us after we are outside of the university. In an essay entitled, “On Reading Books,” Fr. Schall introduced me to the writer Christopher Morley, and his second novel, The Haunted Bookshop. It was a book he had not heard of before and had just received as a gift. I soon wandered about and found an inexpensive first edition. If it was good enough for Fr. Schall to mention in an essay; it was good enough for me to read…it took him over 80 years to discover the text, it would not have to take me that long.

The Haunted Bookshop is a book worth finding and reading; one that truly sparks the moral imagination. As the first novel that I have read by Mr. Morley, I believe it is a good place to begin reading his works and I look forward to my next Morley read. The end of World War I acts as the backdrop of novel, along with a true hope for peace led by President Woodrow Wilson both of these are brought to our attention by the protagonist, Roger Mifflin. Mr. Mifflin is the eccentric used book dealer, turned American hero, whose bookstore and residence above the store sits on Gissing Street in Brooklyn, NY.

On the opening pages, Mr. Morley draws the reader into the world of Brooklyn post WWI with vivd imagery and sounds of the day. The “remarkable bookstore” is described as “It was very different from such bookstores as he had been accustomed to patronize. Two stories of the old house had been thrown into one: the lower space was divided into little alcoves; above, a gallery ran around the wall, which carried books to the ceiling” (Morley 4). Unique and yet typical of most used bookstores that I have visited, it is described as wall to wall and floor to ceiling of books. I visit two such bookstores when I travel outside of Texas; When I visit the ancestral home of Russell Kirk in Mecosta, MI, I pay a visit to the local bookstore, The Mecosta Book Gallery. I have never left the store without at least one book that I am looking for and perhaps three or four that I did not realize were on my reading list. I always eye the “Kirk Section” for any that I do not own or perhaps a first edition. I can say that I did not discover the city of New Orleans in my youth, but rather through marriage. As I have spent time over the years visiting family and attending a conference or two, I make sure to have book money on hand, as I enjoy visiting a handful of book shops in the French Quarter. There are many shops to mention, but the one that you can always find a a surprise book or two within the budget is at Dauphine Street Books. I am “big” guy and I can barely move around in the shop, it is crammed with books, dust, and more books. In Houston, one does not have travel far to find two good book shops, 1/4 Price Books and the other is a hurricane Katrina transplant, Kaboom Books, which actually has two shops in the Heights, and they still have most of their books in storage. All three books shops come to mind when I first opened The Haunted Bookshop. All have serious, yet friendly proprietors, that a first time visitor may find too eccentric for society today. Each book shop still lacks what Morley gives the Haunted Bookshop, the “air” of what book shops were once were: “The air was heavy with the delightful fragrance of mellowed paper and leather surcharged with a strong bouquet of tobacco…There was an all-pervasive drift of tobacco smoke, which eddied and fumed under the glass lamp shades” (Morley 4-5).

I do recommend The Haunted Bookstore, but as I mentioned the reading of this book to a few of friends, they brought to my attention something that I had not thought of as I had been highly praising the book to anyone who would listen; what was brought to my attention was one reason why I might see the book as good “soul-filled” reading is because of my age and my formation in the moral imagination. Friends, acquaintances and some well-intentioned critics write against Harry Potter, but I recently began ask a specific question or two from my own observations: how many children or adults do you know who are moved to want to be Lord Voldemort or Draco Malfoy, two of Harry’s main enemies throughout the novels? No one has come up with a personal example. Two small points: 1) evil is clearly presented and unappealing in the Harry Potter novels; 2) decisions that Harry and his friends make though out the novels, often show the complexity and falliness of man. A more deliberate attack on the moral imagination is in the Twilight novels and movies. Teens, particularly young females, are drawn to the evil of vampires or werewolves; both are presented as just “ways of life”. T.S. Eliot warned his audience and readers in After Strange Gods, that the diabolic imagination moves in a more subtle and unassuming way; well things have changed since the 1930’s and the attack on anything moral: marriage, sexuality, the primacy of life, among many are under consistent and open attack. Morality is just a way of life among many that man can choose. Will a reader in their late teens or twenties appreciate a book with the protagonist, a used book seller, who looks to save America in his imagination, but physically does so by the end of the story? Much less will they be moved by the constant references to the famous and now, not so famous authors, mentioned or contextually referenced? Only those who have a broad reading, or even a faint interest in discovering these connections will be delightfully moved as I was when I came across authors and their works. During this Christmas break treat yourself to reading The Haunted Bookstore or haunt a used bookstore in your hometown.

Books mentioned in this essay are available at The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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2 replies to this post
  1. John, I really loved this post! I especially liked the reference to Eliot's 'After Strange Gods' and the line, "Morality is just a way of life among many that man can choose." I read a tweet yesterday that said "Your morality is just that- yours." I can say, as a twenty-something, that this is not just a problem with the younger generation. The older has been afflicted as well, saying things like, "well my morals might be more narrow but someone else's are not." I've heard the argument. I've made the counter-argument: but what if I murder you? That's my moral judgement. People don't like that extreme. But I think one only needs to look and see what happened in the 20th century and who died when people pushed away God and his commandments. GKC said that people all see what's bad; the difference is what is justifiable. A song by Okkervil River called "Westfalls" is a murder ballad about two boys who kill two girls. There is one line that always haunts me: "Evil don't look like anything." I certainly think it takes a moral imagination to see the evil lurking in the shadows of the world. Thank you again for your wonderful review!

  2. I, too, have found gems at Dauphine Street Books in the Quarter, and there are a few others just like it there. However, I was not familiar with 1/4 books here in Houston. Thanks for the tip!

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