Friday, June 30, 2006

Successful Pilgrimage!

"How innocently life ate the days."
- John Updike

And that's what was happening. I was letting life innocently eat my weekends while continually and somewhat willfully putting off the trip to Seoul and the pilgrimage to WHAT THE BOOK? the fine new/used bookstore located in Itaewon.

This went on for a couple of months. Then, one morning last week, I woke up and had a moment of clarity:

"[Bybee]," I told myself. "You are a bookworm. That is your identity. Who would you be if you were not reading, talking about, writing about, hunting for books? Why, you'd be a shell. If you let your fear of traveling in Seoul overshadow what you truly love, you're taking the first step towards becoming that shell."

I can only listen to myself for so long before I get a little funny in the head. I threw the covers back and jumped up.

2 hours later, I was in the train station buying a ticket to Seoul.
3 hours after that, I was telling the taxi driver "Itaewon," and trying to sound poised, as if I had been there millions of times.
15 minutes after that, the taxi driver set me down in Itaewon.

I paid the driver, climbed out of the taxi, and began asking every foreigner I saw where to find WHAT THE BOOK? No one knew for sure. What the hell? Then what were they doing in Itaewon? Surely there was no other reason to be there, was there?????????????????????

Sigh. Although I'd vowed to have this adventure on my own, I needed to call Pablo for directions. (I'd embarked on my quest so swiftly and impulsively that I didn't even bother to stop at the WHAT THE BOOK? website to double-check their location.)

Pablo seemed a little surprised that I'd finally gotten some guts, but he recovered quickly and provided me with impeccable directions. Turned out that I was already right on top of the joint. All I had to do was click my heels together 3 times and say to myself, "there's no place like WHAT THE BOOK?, There's no place like..." Ooops, I mean that all I had to do was turn right at the espresso bar, walk up a slight hill, cross the street, and there it was!

It was beautiful. This is one time I regret that I don't have a digital camera so I could show you this bookstore. Books line the walls all the way to the ceiling, all the way around the room. Then, in the space between these walls are aisles and aisles chock full of books neatly shelved.

Fiction was on the walls. Nonfiction was in the aisles. I was in Heaven, breathing in the mingled scent of new and used books. If they could only bottle that scent, I know what I'd be dabbing behind my ears and on my wrists each and every morning!

I haven't been that happy since I went to Archer City, Texas a few years ago, to Larry McMurtry's bookstore. For a moment, I briefly considered crying with joy, but decided that tears in my eyes would interfere with a close perusal of book titles.

I gave the used fiction a good going-over, except for the M's. Some expat parked his butt on an upholstered ottoman really close to those shelves, and I couldn't get close without getting in his personal space. He's forgiven though, because of course I have to start building my rationale for a return trip in the near future. Also, extra points to WHAT THE BOOK? for having places to sit down and look through books. Not that I sat. Not for a moment. No, I had to keep moving!

The nonfiction didn't get the same scrutiny as the fiction, but that's just another reason that I must return. Actually, it was difficult to check out the nonfiction thoroughly because there were a lot of customers in there, and that's where they seemed to be clustered. It would have been nice to roam the store inimpeded, but I was more than happy just to be among my own kind.

I can't believe I did it, but I walked out with only 11 books, 2 of them gifts for Pablo because he helped me finally get there, both physically and psychologically. Here's what I bought:

1. Devil In The White City - Erik Larsen -- (nonfiction) For Pablo, but of course, I have no shame. While presenting this book as a gift, I was thoroughly looking ahead to the day I'll borrow it from him.

2. The Global Soul - Pico Iyer -- Also for Pablo. See the above comment.

3. My Left Foot -Christy Brown --mistakenly filed in fiction, but who cares?

4. The Hiding Place -Corrie Ten Boom -- also in fiction, again, who cares?

5. Andersonville -MacKinlay Kantor -- YES!!!! BIG SCORE!!!!!! I'd walked in hoping to find this massive novel about a Civil War POW camp.

6. In America - Susan Sontag --Ditto on the big score; I'd been thinking about this book for months. Many critics find her fiction a little uneven, but most agree that she got it right in this novel.

7. The Poet And The Murderer - Simon Worrell. -- I'd never heard of this nonfiction/true crime book before, but if the poet in question is Emily Dickinson, how could it miss?

8. Plainsong - Kent Haruf -- I've been hearing about how great this midwestern author is for about 10 years now. There's a sequel to Plainsong, so I've got to get this & then hunt the sequel (Eventide) & read them consecutively. Strive to always set new goals, isn't that what they say?

9. Culture Shock! Korea -- A handy resource for obvious reasons.

10. The Remains Of The Day - Kazuo Ishiguro -- I haven't seen the movie with Antony Hopkins, but I really enjoy his acting, and know I'll have fun picturing him in my mind's eye as I read the story of Stevens, the "perfect" butler who is looking back on his career.

11. From The Terrace - John O'Hara -- I read O'Hara's 1934 classic novel, Appointment In Samarra earlier this year and was bowled over. I went into WHAT THE BOOK? hunting for more O'Hara and was gratified to find this deliciously huge (900+ pages) novel, first published in the late 1950s.

What I had in my hands and regret leaving behind:
A book of essays and short stories by Terry Southern, and a book of essays about children's literature by Alison Lurie. Maybe they'll be there when I go back. Can I count on people NOT to buy them? My sense of the average expat's reading taste is pretty accurate, but ...things happen. If someone actually did buy "my" books, I'd respect them for their good taste. (I'd hate them, but I'd respect them.)

Anyway, great bookstore. I'll be back soon. The owner tried to encourage me to shop online as well, which I just might do, but there's nothing like direct contact with the books. If you're an expat in South Korea, and you are seriously craving bookstore, go there, or at least visit their webpage: But why choose? Do both!


Anonymous said...

Great post! Always good to start the day with a good laugh and a cup of coffee.

Adding you to my blogroll - thanks for visiting mine!

Les said...

Plainsong & Eventide are both incredible reads. Marvelous sense of place and unforgettable characters. I had the pleasure of meeting the author a few years ago. Very humble, kind soul.

Les (another Lesley, but going by Les to avoid confusion!)