Books Warming Up Wintry Nights in Sweden

  • onNovember 11, 2014
  • Vol.6 Winter 2009
  • byKim Junghyuk

The most difficult part of getting ready for a trip is choosing which books to take. What kind of books, and how many? It’s always a dilemma. I’ve heard of someone who takes seven books on a week-long trip, and 30 on a month-long trip. I can see why. I wouldn’t feel at ease without that many, at least. Not having books to read on the train, or at the airport during a flight delay—just thinking about it makes me feel bored. I, too, was like that person. From Dostoevsky to Nick Hornby, I had to stuff my bags with all kinds of books that fit all kinds of situations in order to feel at ease.

In October 2008, I left for Sweden as a participant in the Overseas Residency Programs for Korean Writers hosted by the Korean Literature Translation Institute. The stay was to last three months. How many books should I take? I thought. Thirty? A hundred? I couldn’t decide, for the life of me. I couldn’t really grasp how long the three months would actually feel, and what kind of a life I would be living there. In the end, after mulling it over for a long time, I put only one book in my bag. It wasn’t something special that I had to read. Neither was it the most important book in my life.

What I had in mind was to free myself from books for a while, albeit for three months only. I thought I should see the city instead of reading books, and focus on the weather and the atmosphere of the newly encountered city, instead of obsessing over letters. I thought a single volume to read on the plane would suffice. And I thought, if I get a pressing urge to read a book, I’ll just write one. I read half of the book on the plane, and finished it a few days after my arrival. For the first month, I got by all right. Since I had to adjust to a new life, I read more newspapers and signs and maps than I read books. There was a big lake in front of the building where I was staying. Every morning, people ran along the lakeside. I followed suit, and went running as well. I went to the market where everyone in town gathered together, and bought bread and prosciutto, milk, and vegetables for breakfast. Around two in the afternoon, people gathered in sunny areas to bathe in the sun. I went sunbathing as well. The dogs did, too. If you’ve spent a winter in Sweden, you know how briefly the sun shines.

Evenings were difficult. After a month and a half, I couldn’t get any work done, for I longed to read something. I had thought that I could write something myself if I wanted to read, but that wasn’t the case. I wanted to read, but I wanted to read someone else’s thoughts. I felt lonely when I couldn’t.

With the help of an acquaintance, I made my way over to the International Library. There was a section of books from Korea. The Korean books, perhaps 100 volumes altogether, took up about two shelves. Most of them were well-known, and I had read the majority of them. I borrowed both volumes one and two of The Song of the Sword. The Korean words, read underneath a blanket in a cold winter in Sweden, were sweet, so sweet that I resented how they melted and melted away. From time to time, I looked out the window, and saw that many windows were lit. The people of Sweden, like myself, were reading something on the long, long winter night, I thought. They were reading something, licking the sweet sentences that kept melting away under the dim light, and playing the story over and over again in their minds. If someone would read the stories I wrote in such a way, nothing would make me happier, I thought. If someone read my words on a long winter night, covered in a blanket, laughing and crying, feeling anxious, then again relieved, how happy I would be. How happy I would be if someone who felt lonely was healed in this way. Looking at the countless windows outside my window that wintry night in Sweden, I felt happy to be a writer.

Author's Profile

Kim Junghyuk is a writer, film critic, music columnist, and cartoonist. He has received the Dongin Literary Award and Lee Hyo-seok Literary Award. French editions of his books include Your Shadow Is a Monday (Les ombres du lundi), Zombies (Zombies, la descente aux enfers), Wandering Bus (Bus errant), and The Library of Musical Instruments (La bibliothèque des instruments de musique) published by Decrescenzo éditeurs. English editions of his books include The Library of Musical Instruments published by Dalkey Archive Press.