Sunday, June 10, 2007

Windows on the Sidewalks

There was a time when all the bookstores in Vietnam sold only books serving the ideology of the ruling party. Books of all other thoughts and ideas had been destroyed years ago, but a number of them had survived and later resurfaced on the sidewalks of Saigon.

I was very young and always hungry for a good read. It was my favorite pastime to browse sidewalks for used books, on which I spent nearly all my meager earnings. It was on the sidewalks that I encountered big names and smaller ones in a variety of categories, from classic literature to philosophy, from hardcore science to UFOs and vampires.

I still remember the pleasure of finding a tattered copy of Moby Dick or Jane Eyre, the thrill of Le comte de Monte Cristo, or the shock when exposed to mysticism, parapsychology and UFO tales. But particularly dear to my heart was A. J. Cronin's The Green Years, where I found pieces of myself in the young Robert Shannon and his buddy Gavin Blair. Most Cronin's books were then available in French translations though, and my copy of The Green Years actually bore the title of Les vertes années.

Many years have passed and some books I once was so fond of have lost their appeal to me. Les Misérables, for example, now seems to me lengthy and over-sentimental. Is it because I'm now older, wiser, or simply more insensitive? Nevertheless, I'm forever grateful to the used books of Saigon, which opened my eyes to the outside world. They were my windows on the sidewalks.

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