Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Book#1: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

As I turned out, I read 12 books in 2010 though I wanted to read 15-20. I do read a lot online, preferably something very long and very well-written, but this is something I'm trying to get away from, particularly when I live in a city with as many coffee shops as Seoul.

I bought the Hunchback of Notre Dame in September or so, started reading it in November, and would've finished it in about a month if not for the fact that I didn't touch it for most of two months. I read it almost exclusively on buses and trains after that, even taking it onto a half-dozen airplanes though I don't even think I opened it.

I imagined this book as a dramatic love story between Quasimodo and Esmeralda, against the backdrop of societal disapproval. I imagined it as being cheerier than it actually was. In reality, it was dark, brooding, obsessed with architecture and city streets, and, above all, very well-written. It was hard for me to accept that the sort of drama I imagined didn't turn up for the last hundred of the book's 500 pages. So, if I'd never half-seen the pertinent Disney movie, I would have loved this book immensely.

The more I read the book, the more medieval Paris reminded me of Seoul. I spend a lot of time inside the old city of Seoul, more or less bound by the mountains of Bugaksan, Naksan, Namsan and Inwangsan. This area north of the river, only a portion of Seoul today, is often puzzling, run-down and very much second world in places. But it's humbling to know that the same ground that is today the heart of a wealthy Seoul was once the heart of a capital city of a poor, insignificant country.

Paris at the time was a mishmash of streets, neighbourhoods and administrations that wasn't really all that different in spirit from the Seoul of the Joseon period, where bells tolled 33 and 28 times to open and close the city gates. Paris may make more sense today, but Seoul is still an unnerving mixture of streets, buildings and mountains, especially in the old city.

I promised myself that I wouldn't buy other, easier-to-read books until i finished this one, but I did go out and buy Stones into Schools, the sequel to Three Cups of Tea, about an American building schools in northern Pakistan. After I finish that, though, I'm going to have to finish Herodotus' Histories and a collection of short stories by Franz Kafka before I can buy another one.

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