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Sunday, October 30, 2005

Chapter Fifty, in which your Bibliothecary enjoys a Pipeful of Christopher Morley

We have mentioned this wonderful all-around literary man in previous chapters, and it seemed like a good time to add a little depth to the praise.

Morley began as a reader for Doubleday and was adept at identifying promising writers such as William McFee, Pearl S. Buck, and Stephen Vincent Benet. He became a regular newspaper "colyumnist" which gave him the opportunity to roam and discover or invent things literary and fun. His published novels are what he is best known for today. He also was a great essayist, speaker, and a prolific founder of clubs: the Three Hours For Lunch Club is one to which we all would like to belong, and as a member of the first panel to make selections for the Book of the Month Club, he set the standard for every mail-order service to follow.

So why isn't he more popular? Morley lived life and wrote with vivacity, naivety, and charm. His novels have a slow-paced, old-fashioned aura to them which is comforting. His greatest works, even when dealing with life's hard realities, are whimsical and enchanting. Rudyard Kipling characterised Morley's writings as being "about the insides of things." But in his prime, there was a galaxy of other writers producing gritty, realistic books which garnered more attention: Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O'Neill, Theodore Dreiser. While Morley's books were just as good, if not better in some respects, as those of his peers, his were rarely regarded as important, serious works of art.

Morley was a lover of all things literary, and he gave special reverence to bookstores. He was a great advocate for independent booksellers as public servants. The shops they ran, he said, afforded one pastimes as well as the chance to "discover the bread and meat of life." In an essay called "On Visiting Bookshops," Morley wondered why people only go into a bookshop when they need a particular book. "Do they never drop in for a little innocent carouse and refreshment?" he asks. It would be good to remember that, though you may not be in need of any books at the moment, there may be a book in need of you. And the right book can change one's world: The sky was sluiced with a clearer blue, air and sunlight blended for a keener intake of the lungs, faces seen along the street moved us with a livelier shock of interest and surprise.

Morley closes his essay with one of the most beautiful and moving passages in literature, one of the very "rare and sensational delights" which he is describing, those
...that set the mind moving on lovely journeys of its own, and mark off visits to a bookshop not as casual errands of reason, but as necessary acts of devotion. We visit bookshops not so often to buy any one special book, but rather to discover, in the happier and more expressive words of others, our own encumbered souls.
After all the day's tribulations, the go-go-go pace, the disheartening news stories--all the barbaric struggles of mankind--the best books are those that take us "home to the bedtime of a child." Christopher Morley is one of the greatest writers of those invaluable books.

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