King Tut’s bicycle

We were standing around today discussing the moral issues around stolen bicycles. Specifically, what to do should somebody come up to you and tell you that he is the rightful owner of that used bicycle you’ve just bought. Once you know that you are the unwitting possessor of stolen goods, should you give it back to the original owner? Sell it back to him for half of what you paid? It’s a difficult situation because you are both, in a sense, victims.

In our conversation I mentioned a somewhat analogous situation in the art world, when a museum finds itself to be in possession of looted antiquities. Although here the situation is a bit more complex, because museums fairly teem with antique objects of potentially questionable provenance; it is often not in their interest to ask too many questions.

While we were discussing the moral issues surrounding the relocation of ancient treasures from one nation to another, my friend Charles tied it all back to the original conversation by saying “It’s basically the problem of King Tut’s bicycle”.

At which point I completely stopped whatever train of thought I’d been on, because the phrase “King Tut’s bicycle” was just one of the most wonderful and evocative word combinations I think I’ve ever heard. I told Charles he should write a book, and call it “King Tut’s bicycle”. It could be one of those big thought books that ties together current issues of politics and philosophy by relating ancient Egyptian burial rituals to shifting modes of personal transport in the post-Victorian era. Or perhaps a disquisition on the relationships between technology, celebrity and the changing image of childhood over the last thirty seven centuries. The possibilities are endless.

But it doesn’t really matter. Any book with the title “King Tut’s bicycle” is bound to be a best seller. Forget “A Brief History of Time”, keep your “Tuesdays with Morrie”. Because now there’s a new book title in town, and it ain’t messin’ around. You could just print a run of a few hundred thousand, prop some up by the entrance to Barnes and Noble, maybe a hardcover edition with a nice cover picture artfully juxtaposing the eponymous boy king with a bright red Schwinn Phantom, and then sit back and watch the inevitable climb up The New York Times bestseller list.

Imagine the awe on everyone’s face when people show up for that beach vacation with “King Tut’s bicycle” packed between their sun tan lotion and Spiderman beach towels. All of those has-beens who are all still reading “Drink, Play, F**k” (or the hilarious Liz Gilbert parody of that book, “Eat, Pray, Love”) will be green with envy. I suspect you could even market one of those blank books, the kind they sell at the front of bookstores for people who like to avoid the bother of reading, preferring to just fill in their own words. Just slap the phrase “King Tut’s bicycle” on the front of one of these little journals, and you’re golden.

Eat your heart out, Malcolm Gladwell.

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