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A report to Adair County from the Hill Country of Thailand

By Jonathan Morris

The Book Fair
The Thursday, March 31st, 2005 installment of his column, "Observations from a Mudhut."

mood: Weary

After six weeks away from my mud hut, I finally returned last week. Everything inside the hut was, as I expected, covered with dust. That is what happens at the height of the dry season, especially in years where Thailand is reporting record droughts. At least dust is better than a leaky roof, though, so I am not complaining.

After my cameo in Chiang Rai--wherein I didn't even have time to make any observations from said hut--I came back down to Bangkok. The plan is to go back down to Phang-nga for the 100 Days Tsunami Memorial. Lodging, however, seems to be presenting a problem. It seems that given the number of people who will be attending this event, and the Indonesian earthquake last week, every room on high ground is full to the gills. I mean, this wouldn't be the first time I had traveled 1,000 kilometers to sleep on a floor during the hottest part of the year, but it doesn't necessarily mean that I want to do that either. I have 36 hours before the memorial starts. I guess I will decide tomorrow morning.

Now on to today's event, the big annual International Book Fair held at the Sirikit Convention Center in Bangkok. This is by far the biggest collection of books anywhere in Thailand at any time of the year, so I thought I would go check it out. You see, finding interesting books here (whether in Thai or English) is not the easiest thing to do in the world. I figured with 500+ vendors, there had to be someone selling something I wanted to buy. Right?

I didn't buy anything at the book fair, but not for a lack of looking. I think I went by every vendor's stall. I saw A LOT of books today, as well as many, many people at this well-attended event. I can make the following observations.

  1. Nerds in Thailand exist. I saw many of them today with little wheel-carts to carry their booty.

  2. I must have seen half of the eyeglasses that exist in Thailand today. It was a rather bespectacled crew.

  3. I am not sure what the people who were buying books were buying, but I would guess that the majority of the purchases fell into one of the following categories:

    • Cartoon books--a reading staple for adults of all ages (this includes pretty much the only versions of actual Thai literary classics that you can find easily now)

    • Computer books

    • Translations of English self-help books, either helping to become a better manager or helping pull yourself out of whatever emotional situation that only people with spare income enough for books seem to get into (it makes me sad that I can already see the Western emotional isolation creeping into Thai culture)

    • Translations of foreign novels

    • School workbooks for children

    • Language learning manuals promising foreign language proficiency in a small number of hours (in rough proportion these books were 65% English, 25% Mandarin Chinese (Simplified characters), 9.9% Japanese, 0.1% all the other languages of the world--sorry, French}.
I can guess that the purchase would have been in one of these categories because these categories accounted for at least 95% of all the books at the fair. It was numbing, really. You see, the body of modern Thai literature is not what you would call mature.

There are an incredible number of books that have been generated (often without much thought) in the few "hit" areas, because, like with other small businesses in Thailand, the initial hurdles to entering the field are not what they are in the West. It doesn't take that much to publish and distribute your own book, so you have many books of marginal quality and minimal expense all vying for the same niche while you have almost no higher-end options.

I am not sure why it is that you get that higher-end vacuum, but it is an effect that you see in many markets in Thailand, especially handicrafts. Some Thais say that it is because people are so used to poor quality products that they select based only on price. Like I said, I am not sure, but I do know it makes for a very, very dreary selection at a bookstore.

For instance, the one book I was looking for was anything about Burmese language, which I figured wouldn't be that hard to find given that Burma is probably the closest foreign country to Bangkok. After looking over the entire fair, I finally wised up and used the computer searches they had set up--yes, I tested the database by searching for books that I had seen and the searches came up empty, but that is another story.

A book on Burmese language was supposedly at the Duang Komol (a large book chain) stall, one of the first I visited. So, I went all the way back there. I asked them if they had a book on Burmese. The kid working there stared blankly, as Thai kids in the service industry are wont to do any time they are faced with a question outside their usual portfolio of customer queries. The manager, however, sidled over as I was explaining that I had walked over to this stall because the computer search said they had this book. "Oh, we have it, but you will have to go to our store. We didn't bring it with us." Perfect.

To cleanse myself of the lack of fulfillment from the book fair, I went to Emporium Mall and walked around in that Japanese-owned bookstore whose name I can never remember. I was amazed that at about 1/30th the size of the book fair, it had at least 4 times the diversity of topics covered. Sure, part of that is because there are more books on more subjects put out by English presses, but part of it is also consumer driven. The English readership requires more topics covered than the big six above. Again, it's probably a chicken and egg thing.

One funny note from the book fair was that I picked up the "Tsunami Diaries" of rock-star forensic scientist Dr. Pornthip who was heading up the victim identification after the tsunami. I was flipping through it, reflecting back on the time that I had been down there helping out as a translator right after the tsunami. A picture of one of my friends caught my eye, then I looked over to see who she was talking to in the picture. It was me. That was sort of fun, even if I now share guilt-by-association in the crime that is Thai quickie literature.
JONATHAN MORRIS is working with tsunami relief in Thailand. He's a veteran of the Peace Corps, and is the son of Adair natives, Jack Morris, Louisville, and the late Judy Baker Morris.

Jonathan Morris is the grandson of the late Mr. and Mrs. Everett Morris of the Beulah Chapel area of Hwy 206, and of the late Doc and Cledith Baker of Gradyville. Mr. Morris already has a sizeable fan club of cousins, other kinfolk, and friends in Adair County who follow his work online and through email correspondence.

He is particularly well-known in southwestern Adair County. Having made the requisite number of pilgrimmages, he has qualified for lifetime privileges as a member and favorite son of the Gradyville community.

He's permitted us to reprint this recent work from his column, or diary, at his website, and to link to his website, which we hope many will bookmark.

Our own National Geographic connection

2005-04-12 - Thailand - Photo Jonathan Morris. ISLAND GYPSIES like this man in Thailand have gotten their names since the December tsunami scattered survivors in all directions. Jonathan Morris in his "Observations from a Mudhut" tells us about life there. Click 'read more' for links to his letters.
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