Tuesday 28 November 2006

Lost like a Nowhere Man

May I borrow the title “Nowhere Man” of a Beatles song to talk about a kind of people we’ve known? As the song is philosophy-oriented, it’s hard to tell exactly who the “nowhere man” it mentions is. Some say he is is an Utopian who “knows not where he’s going to”, others say he is a member of a straitlaced society whose life has no purpose. And me, I think that nowhere man represents a sort of person whom we refer to as “bookworm”.

In the animated movie Yellow Submarine, The Beatles, heroes of the film, on their way to save  the world from the Blue Minies monsters, met a stranger named Jeremy. This man introduced himself to the fab as an "eminent physicist, polyglot classicist, prize-winning botanist, hard-biting satirist, talented pianist, good dentist too." He, of course, was truly proud of himself. John Lennon, however, after listening to Jeremy’s long and complacent introduction, said, “Let me see. There must be… must be some word to describe him…” And the band began to sing “Nowhere Man” as a song to sum up Jeremy. When they stopped singing to leave  Jeremy, the man realized how lonely and empty his life was, purposelessly burying himself in meaningless knowledge. And he burst out crying.

I may have misunderstood what Lennon wanted to say in his song. Hopefully this is not of much importance, though. I would like to concentrate more on the kind of person we’ve known as “bookworm”.

In English, a bookworm means someone who spends a great deal of time reading. In Vietnamese, or in my personal view to be exact, a bookworm is the one who is drown in books and fails to apply to reality any of the knowledge they get from books. In other words, bookworms are unrealistic readers, and, in this sense, their knowledge seems useless.

Oddly enough, while the Vietnamese have never been known as a people diligent in reading, I’ve seen so many bookworms here.

Bookworms are easily recognized by their attitudes towards and views of life. As for me only, I find that bookworms are characterized by some common personalities. First and foremost, they must be very diligent readers. Secondly, they are undeniably intelligent. Thirdly (and regrettably), they do not separate between life in reality and life in books.

Years ago I talked to Dinh T.A., who was then quite a famous translator among overseas students. He was the kind of guy who would impress you with his intelligence and knowledge from the first meet. Many would immediately think he was a genius and admire him so much that even when I have got out of his aura, I still think it’s not good of me to say he is exactly a bookworm. In our talk which lasted for no less than 3 hours and in which he was the dominant player, he talked much about philosophy, politics, economics, and leadership. He spent much time expressing his burning wishes of turning the national economy of Vietnam into a knowledge-based, smart economy.  All was new to me to such a degree that I was really bewildered. I had never heard of that sort of thing before. Irregistably I came into the belief that T.A. was undoubtedly a genius, and I even felt a bit pity that his thoughts were suppressed in this damned country. I would be tormented by that feeling of pity until the next day, when by chance I picked up a book at his table, turning some pages to find in it all what he said to me the day before. Yes, it was exactly the same as what he had said. And he was not the author of the book, of course not.

A couple of days afterwards, T.A. met me with new ideas of digitalizing an advertising agency that I worked with as a freelance. He suggested a meeting to present his ideas to the company. Though I was reluctant to conduct the unpromising meeting, I tried my best to support him - the alien - until I looked at the audience and found inane faces all around me. I would be very much more disappointed the next day, when I discovered that the ideas of digitalizing a company were entirely borrowed from Bill Gates in his book “Speed of Thought”.

T.A. didn’t see that there was, and there would always be, a big chasm between books and realities. This is especially true of circumstances in Vietnam, for which reason bookworms are many here in number. In developed Western countries, the “culture of reading” is something worth encouraging, either because western books are more applicable to life or because their readers are less likely to become bookworms. But I have a little doubt that such a culture should be fostered in Vietnam these days because it’s easy for ones to become bookworms here and hard for ones not to become such.

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