Monday, February 5, 2018

The most popular books in Korea

Every once in a while, I'm going to try to translate some of the blurbs and reviews about the most popular books in Korea. It can be hard for an outsider to get a sense of Korean literature (and the wider landscape of books in translation, self-help books, etc.), so I hope that this might help enable other people interested in Korean books, as well as people who don't know any Korean. Here are Kyobo Books' top ten bestsellers for the week of January 24-30:
  1. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, by Mark Manson (translated from the English).
    • Obviously, this is an American book, not a Korean one. I think this book was also really popular in the U.S., though to be honest, I still don't have a great sense of what it's about (other than general self-esteem and prioritization). I do think that this book works well in Korea due to the popularity of books blending self-help with social commentary (see #4, #6, #8 below). 
  2. Kim Jiyeong, Born '82 (82년생 김지영), by Jo Namju (조남주). Part of the "Today's Young Writers" (오늘의 젊은 작가) series.
    • "The novel Kim Jiyeong, Born '82, which has become the guiding light of 'young feminist' fiction, portrays the social-structural inequality and discrimination experienced by women in Korean society through its heroine Kim Jiyeong, a homemaker whose career was cut off by childbirth and childcare." (Yi Yunju, Korea Daily)
    • "The book is a novel based on actual statistics on various kinds of gender discrimination during the life of its heroine, Kim Jiyeong, a 36-year-old woman born in 1982. Even though it's a work of fiction, due to its use of statistics and articles written the time, it also serves in effect as a work of nonfiction." (Yi Seon-ok, Huffington Post)
  3. The Temperature of Language (언어의 온도), by Yi Giju (이기주). 
    • "The book is an essay that blends observations about everyday life with emotional language. A conversation overheard between a grandmother and her grandson on the subway; the work of taking one's mother to the hospital over and over; memories of college volunteer work; an invitation to a friend's wedding—in such ordinary episodes, sentences that bespeak profound emotions ('I know someone who suffered a wound—a wound of sheer awful depth'; 'It's a flower blossoming over a land that says it's a reckoning') are embedded." (Jeong Weonshik, Gyeonghyang Newspaper)
  4. Word Bowl (말 그릇), by Kim Yuna (김유나).
    • This is a self-help book by a psychologist who does coaching for companies like Samsung and LG. In it, she uses the idea that everyone has a "word bowl" to encourage her audience to make what they say stronger and deeper. She also talks about the importance of listening actively in a conversation. (Adapted from the Daum Books blurb.)
  5. My English Adolescence (나의 영어 사춘기), by Yi Shiweon (이시원).
    • It's hard to exaggerate how much Korean people strive to work on their English, and this book is just one of a billion claiming it has an especially effective and rapid (8-week) method to bring your English from 0 to 70 in short order. 
  6. I Decided to Live on My Own Terms (나는 나로 살기로 했다), by Kim Su-hyeon (김수현).
    • "'When I became an adult, the world was a chilly place,' said Kim Su-hyeon as she was publishing this book. Absurdities about, people draw lines for each other to an unnecessary degree, and even perfectly ordinary people face scorn and judgment when the opportunity arises. We're living in a capitalist society; everything has turned into a matter of subordinates and superiors (갑과 을). This is the world in which we struggle so hard to live." (Adapted from the Daum Books blurb.)
    • This book seems to be a kind of combination self-help book and memoir about rejecting the pressures of social media (called "SNS," or "social networking services," in Korean) and other social pressure in favor of self esteem and "the courage to be scorned" (미움받을 용기). Like many books of its kind in Korea, it has drawings and cartoons, too. (This blog post.)
  7. Miracles of the Namiya Grocery (나미야 잡화점의 기적), by Higashino Keigo (東野 圭吾). 
    • This is the first time I'm doing this, so let me explain: massive amounts of Japanese books are translated into and published in Korean, a dynamic that has existed since the late nineteenth century. Miracles of the Namiya Grocery has enjoyed tremendous success all across Asia; it has been adapted into movies in Japan as well as China. The author is best known as a crime novelist, but Namiya Grocery sounds more like a fanciful tale along the lines of The Elegance of the Hedgehog
    • Condensed from the (longer) English description on the blog "Books from Japan": "Three youths fresh from a burglary head for an abandoned house they’ve had their eye on to lie low for a while. As the three hide out there biding their time, something strange happens: in the dead of night, a letter drops through the slot in the front shutter. Unsigned, it’s from a female athlete preparing for 'next year’s Olympics,' seeking advice as to whether she should continue training for her lifelong dream, or withdraw from competition to nurse her boyfriend, who has been told he has only a short time to live. After discussing how best to advise her, the three youths write an answer—actually a request for more information—and almost right away, another letter drops through the slot. As the exchange continues, it becomes clear that the Olympics the woman has her sights set on are the 1980 Moscow games, and that they are corresponding with her across a gap of 33 years."
  8. How to Deal with Rude People With a Smile (무례한 사람에게 웃으며 대처하는 법), by Jeong Munjeong (정문정).
    • Another kind of book blending self-help with social commentary, the title seems to give a pretty accurate sense of what it's about. The publicity copy makes it sound like it focuses a lot on problems inside workplaces—what happens when you feel underappreciated and overlooked, but yet you fear raising objections to others' rudeness will cause you to be seen as "overly emotional." The copywriting appeals to this as an especially Korean situation to find oneself in, though one suspects this problem arises for many people in many workplaces everywhere. 
  9. Summer Outside (바깥은 여름), by Kim Aeran (김애란).
    • This collection of seven short stories is the author's follow-up to the very popular 비행운 (bihaeng-un, which literally means "jet contrail," but is also kind of an untranslatable pun involving the phrase "good luck"). It anthologizes several previously published works, including one prize winner and one that was turned into a successful movie. 
  10. The Dignity of Words (말의 품격), by Yi Giju (이기주). 
    • "The author Yi Giju, loved by many readers for his book The Temperature of Language [see #3 above], has written this essay collection, The Dignity of Words. Through 24 keywords, such as listening, empathy, response, gossip, attraction, and noise, he unspools his thoughts on words, people, and dignity." (Chosun Ilbo)


  1. This is so interesting, thank you for writing this! Now if only I could ever learn enough Korean to be able to read any of them...

  2. Thank you for sharing this! please continue to write more posts sharing book reviews