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While traveling in Vietnam, contributor Karin Muller comes across a poor man who just happens to be quite rich in one area of his life: his fascination with, and passion for, Western literature.

Postcard: The Bookseller

By Karin Muller, 6/28/2002

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I had been scouring the official bookstores for days, looking for a trashy novel to reward myself after months of Vietnamese grammar texts. Western books and magazines, I was told, were banned. I resigned myself to a few more months of barren reading and returned to my dictionary, opened to the letter R.

Then once again the Vietnamese entrepreneurial spirit rose to the occasion, this time in the form of a little old man with a tattered handbag and a big floppy hat, plodding slowly down the beach.

He paused at my towel and offered me an elegant bow. "Excuse me," he said in almost perfect Voice of America, "would you be interested in a novel or two?..."

I almost toppled him in my haste to get inside his bag. Danielle Steele, Kurt Vonnegut, Ken Follet; he had them all. He spent his days wandering the beach, buying, selling, and reading the worn paperbacks he garnered from sun-baked travelers. He had followed Dante through the Inferno, shared thirsty days and nights with The Old Man and The Sea, and was hoping to someday come across Orwell's 1984, to understand mysterious references he'd come across to Big Brother.

After much coaxing he sat on the edge of my towel and related his own story. It began in the South Vietnamese Army. Since then he'd been an itinerant sign painter, a balloon seller and popsicle maker. "That was the job I liked best," he said. "The children were always so happy to see me..."

For fifteen years he had listened to American broadcasts in secret, and smuggled censored Western books into his tiny shack. Then one day the government relaxed its restrictions on foreign contact. He had been roaming the beaches ever since, finding joy in every new title that came his way.

The books had brought him more than a love of Shakespeare's sonnets. His language skills had blossomed, and he now spoke a lyrical English that rivaled some of his most cherished authors. I wondered why he didn't go after/look for/find/try to get one of the sought-after positions as translator for a foreign firm.

He shook his head without the slightest hesitation. He was quite content, he said, and enjoyed the freedom of working to his own rhythm. There must be something, I insisted, that he wished for but did not already have?

This time he hesitated for a fraction of a second. "A house perhaps?" I prompted quickly. "A small motorbike? A steady income?"

He shook his head. "A library," he said softly. A place where everyone was free to sit and read and drink a cup of tea.

He cocked his head and smiled at me. We spilled his bag onto the sandy towel and I listened while he put a careful finger on each crumbling binding, and explained why one was good, the other not. Eventually he rose, leaving me with four of his favorite titles and the feeling there was more to life than making money. And that he had found it, somewhere between a child's hopeful smile and the pages of Shakespeare's greatest works.

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