Sunday, July 03, 2005

Ambiance

This blog entry begins sort of like a joke: "Three Canadians, one Kiwi, one Welshman, one Korean, one Japanese and one American walk into a bar..." Yeah, that's what it's like when I go places with my co-workers.

Anyway, we were all in Busan, living it up in a work-related way that I still really don't have a full grasp of. But never mind. All I know for sure is that it was a damn nice hotel and the university that employs us was picking up the tab.

After a nice dinner and lots of drink, we were all feeling quite convivial and were of the opinion that what else was there to do but go forth and seek out more drink? That's how we got into the hotel's bar. The hostess put together 2 long tables in the back so we could all sit together and chat and guzzle.

So there we were, in the back in the corner. I was ready to take my seat near Pablo and CanadaBoy, when something stopped me in my tracks. If you're a faithful reader of this blog, you've guessed it: There were 2 bookshelves in this room, about 5 feet apart. These shelves had a few knicknacks on them, but there were also a few books on the shelves! Of course, they were there to give the place a little intellectual ambiance. Ambiance be damned. I started pulling the books off the shelves and examining the titles.

Most of the stuff was crap. Old crap, but crap just the same. Indifference and alcohol quickly washed those titles from my brain. I did find one book that piqued my interest: ARROWSMITH by Sinclair Lewis. It was an old copy, a third edition that was dated 1926, but it was in fairly good shape. Readable shape. In the dim light of the bar, the medium-to-large print was easy to read on slightly yellowed pages. I flipped through the novel. Snippets of narration and dialog kept snagging my eye. I leaned against the wall and read on.

Pablo called out to me, "Leave the books [Bybee], and come sit down and share a pitcher of beer." My head jerked up. Beer? Book? Which?

I took ARROWSMITH back to the table with me. "I found one I like," I said. Taking a healthy drink of beer, I turned around and began to give the bookshelf right behind me some attention. Again, all crap, except for another 1920s novel called GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES by Anita Loos. This book was actually in better shape than ARROWSMITH, and had cunning little illustrations of flappers in the margins of practically every page. It really was a dandy book, and I don't know why I replaced it on the shelf so quickly!

I passed ARROWSMITH down to Pablo, who looked at it a little. I must've said the name of the novel aloud at some point, because there was some mild interest in the book from Baldy, TechnoKiwi, Newfie, and CanadaBoy because they thought it had something to do with Aerosmith, the band led by Steven Tyler.

Sometime between the pitcher of regular beer and the glasses of Guinness, I knew that I could not leave the bar without ARROWSMITH. It was right there on the table in front of me. I alternated between reading little bits and holding my hand over it protectively. TechnoKiwi and Baldy were encouraging me to walk out with it, which is of course exactly what I wanted to do. How could I return that book to the shelf, return it to being perceived as merely a knicknack? Books aren't knicknacks. They're meant to be READ. That's their destiny!

The idea grew and grew and I discussed it at some length with the others at the table. Finally, I reached a high enough level of indignation and announced that I would liberate ARROWSMITH from this bar and allow it to function as a book should. My foggy brain loved the symmetry: I would have a book to read, and the book would have a reader. Both ARROWSMITH and I would be fufilling our destinies.

I wondered if I would be caught leaving the bar with a book. Did the bar staff even know that there were books on those back room shelves? Did they care? Why would they care? They were all Korean! These books were in English!

"Just smuggle it out under your shirt," Baldy advised. "If someone asks why your tits look funny, just hit him."

Luckily, the caper could be accomplished without my chest being called into question. That night, I was wearing what's ordinarily meant to be a "big shirt", but I've lost weight since coming to Korea, so it's actually a "really big shirt" now. When we left the bar for the next round of conviviality and drinking, Baldy stood in front of me, blocking the hostess' view while I slipped the book under my left arm, under my shirt, then we all straggled out together. I strove for a woozy but innocent look. Made it past the hostess with no problem.

I struggled briefly with what I'd done, but I finally broke it down to this question: "What would Sinclair Lewis think?"

I haven't read any biographies of this author, but I'd like to think that since he wrote a lot of novels (I've read MAIN STREET, ELMER GANTRY, ANN VICKERS and something else I can't remember), maybe he, too, was a shameless bookworm. Maybe he was also prone to drunken antics and gestures like pinching books from bars.

I'd also like to think that he'd understand about living in a foreign country where there's not a Barnes & Noble on every corner. Furthermore, I think he'd like it that one of his books is going to be read very soon (as soon as I finish IN A SUNBURNED COUNTRY by Bill Bryson). Pablo says that he'll borrow it after I'm finished. I also registered it on bookcrossing.com, so I can release it to the world at large at some point, hopefully to some other appreciative reader.

At almost 80 years of age, after a long period of stagnation as a piece of frou-frou, this copy of ARROWSMITH's life may just be beginning! I finally decided that if there is a Literary Heaven, Sinclair Lewis was there, giving me a wink and the thumbs-up that night.

With that settled, my thoughts are returning with great fondness and regret to that copy of GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES. Hey guys! When's our next trip to Busan?

4 comments:

Maethelwine said...

You did the right thing, and you know it. We've got a place here in Hiroshima that uses old books for decoration, and they've actually GLUED the pages and covers together. It gives me nightsweats. I pried one of them open and found it came from the library of a small college in Australia, but further investigation destroyed the book.

Minty Buff said...

As soon as you trust yourself, you will know how to live. To him who is in fear everything rustles.

theinsider said...

Completely understandable.. rescue the book from its hell. :)

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