Homage to the Booksellers of Yangon

Patrick Keeney
February 22, 2019
A tour of Southeast Asia brought Patrick Keeney to the city of Yangon in Myanmar and its clutch of used bookstores on Pansodan Street. He writes of the joy of his literary discoveries there, in language echoing Orwell’s beautiful prose in Burmese Days.

Homage to the Booksellers of Yangon

Patrick Keeney
February 22, 2019
A tour of Southeast Asia brought Patrick Keeney to the city of Yangon in Myanmar and its clutch of used bookstores on Pansodan Street. He writes of the joy of his literary discoveries there, in language echoing Orwell’s beautiful prose in Burmese Days.
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Unblinking, rather like a great porcelain idol, U Po Kyin gazed out into the fierce sunlight. He was a man of fifty, so fat that for years he had not risen from his chair without help, and yet shapely and even beautiful in his grossness; for the Burmese do not sag and bulge like white men, but grow fat symmetrically, like fruits swelling. His face was vast, yellow and quite unwrinkled, and his eyes were tawny. His feet—squat, high-arched feet with the toes all the same length—were bare, and so was his cropped head, and he wore one of those vivid Arakanese longyis with green and magenta checks which the Burmese wear on informal occasions. He was chewing betel from a lacquered box on the table, and thinking about his past life.
 
It had been a brilliantly successful life. U Po Kyin’s earliest memory, back in the eighties, was of standing, a naked pot-bellied child, watching the British troops march victorious into Mandalay. He remembered the terror he had felt of those columns of great beef-fed men, red-faced and red-coated; and the long rifles over their shoulders, and the heavy, rhythmic tramp of their boots. He had taken to his heels after watching them for a few minutes. In his childish way he had grasped that his own people were no match for this race of giants. To fight on the side of the British, to become a parasite upon them, had been his ruling ambition, even as a child.
 
From Burmese Days by George Orwell

For the bibliophile one of the pleasures of being on the road is reading authors one might not otherwise read, indulging in those guilty pleasures one admits to enjoying only after a glass of wine. One bounces from The Invasion of the Body Snatchers to the comic erudition of Geoff Dyer, or from the latest Stephen King nightmare to the paranoid fantasies of Philip K. Dick.  

Of course, one also has some constant companions. Mine include Orwell, whose essays and insights never grow stale, and never more so than when travelling in Myanmar. Burma (as Myanmar was then known) was colonized by the British, and Orwell spent five years in Burma as a member of the Indian Police Force, from 1922-27. (The British considered Burma an administrative unit of India). Orwell came to loathe the British Empire. He saw it as a force that disfigured both the colonized and the colonizer, sentiments which form the themes of his first (and arguably his best) novel, Burmese Days. He was working on a second novel set in Burma at the time of his death. He continues to be widely read throughout the country.

The acclaimed travel writer Jan Morris tests the livability of every new city she visits by smiling at strangers, and rating the city by the number of smiles returned. I have a different test. Upon arriving in a city for the first time, I take an inventory of the bookstores and booksellers. One of the unexpected delights in Yangon is the number of booksellers and bookstalls along Pansodan Street. For the avid reader, this area of Yangon is a bit of heaven. Unlike Morris, I judge the livability of a city by the number of its booksellers. By my metric, Yangon ranks among the world’s most livable cities. Perhaps I should say how I arrived at this test. 

Having spent the better part of my working life in universities, I have noticed that the best students are, without exception, promiscuous readers. And they are frequently reading books far from their formal field of study, ignoring (or at least avoiding as best they can) those texts assigned by their professor. 

A good friend who is a native of Myanmar graduated with an economics degree from Yangon University yet spent her undergraduate years reading novels in the cafeteria. She has an encyclopedic knowledge of Victorian women novelists. This suits her well.  Whatever her economics professors might think, in my opinion acquiring expertise on Victorian novelists was a much better use of her time and talent than acquiring expertise on Laffer curves and the like.  

This sort of serendipitous learning is more characteristic of higher education than some professors might like to concede. Undergraduates frequently land in the wrong program. They find their formal course of study stultifying, and so rightly channel their energies elsewhere. They haunt the library, where, with luck, they stumble on an author or topic or subject that engages their passion and imagination. It is then that their real education begins. 

Which leads us to bookstores. The used bookstore, even more than the library, offers us a place where we can stumble upon new writers to fire the imagination, stir the soul and contribute in some small way to our education. The American author Larry MacMurtry dedicated one of his books to, “The used booksellers I have known, and who have done so much for my education.” This is a sentiment to which I can only add, “Me too”.

Bookworms need to feed, and I have never encountered a more sumptuous feast than that provided by the booksellers on and around Pansodan street. Like the best booksellers everywhere, they encourage browsing and loitering. Language is sometimes a barrier, but easily overcome by the smiles and graciousness of the vendors. They have an obvious passion for the book trade, and are sympathetic to the quirks and shopping habits of booklovers.   

The books on offer are in both Burmese and English. They run the gamut from academic monographs to technical manuals, and from classic novels to the latest blockbusters.  Orwell’s writings are ever-present, as are books on Burmese history and art and books by and about Aung Saan Suu Kyi. Judging by the books on offer, one concludes that the general reading public in Yangon is marked by its catholicity of interest.

But what catches my eye is western pulp fiction from the 1940’s and 1950’s in gaudy paperback editions with sensationalized illustrations. Their covers draw me to them like a moth to the flame. I am easily seduced by the literary promise of aliens attacking earth, things that refuse to die, hard-boiled detectives and damsels in mortal peril. Alas, the lurid, four-colour artwork invariably promises more than their author delivers and is an object lesson in not judging a book by its cover.

And yet… a new find that I hold looks promising.  My eye is drawn to the distinctive, tell-tale Kangaroo logo, identifying this paperback as an Anchor Book.  Its title is Trial and Error by Anthony Berkeley. The graphics are constrained but the cover announces, “I loved her, but she deserved to die.” I try to imagine such a scenario but cannot. I resist the temptation. 

But there is a volume I cannot resist, one which has been on my reading list for a long time. It is Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society. It is a paperback edition from 1950. The cover depicts an equi-balanced scale, with “Literature” on one side and “Society” on the other. My new find is nearly 70 years old and has the distinctive, musty smell of an old book. It is water-stained on the inside cover, and the first page has come unglued. Turning the pages makes the book crackle like the spine of an old man. I want this book, and the proprietor readily agrees on a fair price. 

Trilling is no longer much read, which is a pity, another victim of the ebb and flow of changing academic fashion.   The book is dedicated to Jacques Barzun.  Trilling and Barzun were giants in their day. They are among the last generation of American intellectuals to have great influence outside the ivory tower.  Trilling’s essays are erudite incursions into the literary arts, education and culture. He embraced an older, self-critical version of liberalism, one which seeks to maintain the freedom and autonomy of the individual against the collective or ideology of any kind. He worries about the diminution of the imagination in public life. He echoes Burke in his critique of liberalism’s over-emphasis on the rational: “… in its vision of a general enlargement and freedom and rational direction of human life [liberalism] drifts towards a denial of the emotions and imagination.”

Trilling, like Orwell, is pleading for a more universal and expansive understanding of human dignity. Surely he is right, and this humane sentiment must count among the central lessons for any student of literature, as well as for anyone who travels.  We travel in order to see how other members of the human family living under different skies order their lives. Or so it appears to me…

And as I ponder this idea, it occurs to me that Trilling’s endorsement of pluralism is something that Yangon’s booksellers have taken to heart. And I am grateful.  I am in Yangon on Pansodan Street, wandering from one bookseller to the next, and keeping a sharp eye out for another literary treasure, one which I’m sure I’ll find just around the corner at the next stall.

Patrick Keeney is currently touring Southeast Asia.

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