A Chiang Mai Bookstore Odyssey

by Kenneth Champeon, Dec 12, 2003 | Destinations: Thailand / Chiang Mai

"And they call me the jewel of Asia,
Of Asia,
The Geisha." -- James Joyce, Ulysses

When it comes to the frivolous spending of money, I have but one vice: I am a collector of books, specifically hardcover editions of texts forming the Western (or Eastern) canon. When, as Yeats put it, I am "old and grey and full of sleep, / And nodding by the fire", I hope to "take down" some book, "And slowly read, and dream of the soft look / Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep", where "you" of course means my own personal, usually fictional, Muse. Jorge Luis Borges famously imagined heaven to be a kind of library, and the late philosopher Paul Feyerabend, having been wounded in World War II, vaguely hoped that his legs had been blown off so that he could spend the rest of his life wheeling a chair between the shelves. Occasionally, and perhaps insanely, I have a similar hope.

Anyway, today I set out in search of a hardcover version of James Joyce's Ulysses, which some wit once called the best book he had never read. I myself have read several of its chapters several times, but I have never read it straight through; back in my student days one of my comrades actually hosted a James Joyce party in which we were obliged to drink Guinness, eat Irish stew, and read Joyce out loud in an affected brogue. Ulysses was voted the number one novel of the twentieth century by the Modern Library; Martin Amis, no poor wordsmith himself, went further, calling Ulysses "the greatest novel ever written". A worthwhile quarry, methinks.

Unfortunately I live not in Dublin but in Chiang Mai, not especially known as a center of precious books. But you would be surprised how many bookstores it has per capita: the city is not only an educational center but the gateway to northern Thailand, and thus literate travelers are constantly acquiring and shedding the volumes used to pass the time between the plying of rapids and the pestering of hill tribes. But Ulysses?

My first stop was Backstreet Books on the Chiang Mai Kao Road, just behind Daret's Restaurant near Thapae Gate. I began here because it was here that I had found a beautiful hardcover Gulliver's Travels and several other less exalted works. In the classics section was a new collection of famous Russian novels bound in red (red!) but it seemed to have only the first volumes of Anna Karenina and The Brothers Karamazov. And the only version of Ulysses I saw was a new paperback edition, which I could easily imagine decaying in this tropical climate.

Gecko Books next door, which several local magazines have touted as the best used bookshop in Chiang Mai if not the whole of Southeast Asia, had more in the Joyce line but no hardcover Ulysses; its only hardcovers were obscure. But the pundits are probably right to give Gecko highest marks, both in quantity and diversity. This almost makes up for the fact that its proprietor has seen fit to practically wallpaper the city with Gecko advertisements.

I next found myself in The Lost Bookshop on Ratchamanka Road, where I had once been pleased to find the out-of-print novel of the Malaysian Emergency ...And the Rain My Drink by Han Suyin, as well as The Ugly American. But the shop is considerably smaller than the two already mentioned, and had only the paperback Ulysses, looking every bit as distinctive as a slice of Wonder bread.

I had low hopes for the subsequent island in the sea of illiteracy, Hobo Books on Chaiyaphum Road adjacent to Daret's. I have had great success in selling my leftovers to its eager Thai owner, but the shop itself is even smaller than the Lost one; but to its credit, it does have a surprisingly good assortment of current titles about Asia. But no sign of the "greatest novel ever written", alas.

The following vendor proved somewhat serendipitous: Shaman Books, down the road a bit from Hobo. A Dutch friend had recommended Shaman to me because of its rather extraordinary collection of books by Noam Chomsky; and indeed the store prominently displayed several books by both him and Edward Said. And -- what's this? -- a Harvard Classics edition of Homer, and what is more, Homer's Odyssey! And only 180 baht to boot. Deliriously I paid and left, but not before seeing, once again, the very same bland Ulysses paperback nestled amidst several other works by the creator of Molly Bloom.

Options were thinning, but I happened to descry on a lamppost an advertisement for Irish Rover Bookshop, located on the soi adjacent Sompet Market on Moon Muang Road. But the shop was not only small but completely disorganized, with the books not even arranged in alphabetical order (a problem also with portions of the Chiang Mai University library, where I can easily detect the books I have returned because they have been placed at the end of a shelf.) With my luck, this shop probably had the very book I was looking for, but damned if I was going to bear the summer heat to unearth it.

Speaking of the CMU library, I am certain that they have a magnificent Everyman's Library edition of Ulysses, and for a moment I contemplated stealing it -- or buying it. Who would notice? Could that many Thais endure Joyce's contortions of the English language? Can many foreigners? But, I decide, this would be the easy way out. I resume my search.

On the road again, it occurred to me that like many sicko Commie artists, James Joyce spent a good part of his youth patronizing brothels (for how else could he have penned Ulysses's steamy last chapter about the adulterous Molly, which ends with the breathy "I will Yes"?) I thought of this because I was driving down Loi Kroh Road, where are several brothels. But I was not going to the brothels. No, I was going to The Bookshop, which used to be about halfway down Loi Kroh. I say "used to be" because it turned out to have vanished, and I remembered that its Irish owner had since relocated to the nearby town of Pai, where I discovered that he too -- an Irishman! -- carried only that same silly paperback.

Now, there are several other bookstores in Chiang Mai: the Book Exchange and Book Zone off Thapae Road; Bookazine in Chiang Inn Plaza and another soon to open on Nimmenhamin Road; DK Books on Chaiyaphum Road, Suriwong Book Center on Sridonchai Road, and Centre Point Books near Central department store. But with the exception of Book Exchange, these stores carry chiefly periodicals and paperbacks about Southeast Asia.

Burnt to a crisp by a hateful sun, I returned home, defeated. "Futility," as the novel's Stephen Dedalus thinks when faced with a hopeless student. What cultural desert do I live in that I cannot find this monument of civilization? I suspect that the extravagant Kinokuniya bookstore in Bangkok's Emporium mall may be the only place in the entire Kingdom where I could be sure to get my paws on what I want; bookstore owners in Chiang Mai have told me that they have difficulty selling books that are too big or too heavy because travelers do not want to lug them about. Well, desire is suffering, said the Buddha. "My life is pain," said shipwrecked Odysseus.

So I settled for second or third best, and headed to the CMU library. The Odyssey ends happily and Ulysses ends ecstatically, but this article will have to end anticlimactically. Such is life as opposed to art.

- The End -