The Book World of Korea (I)

21st century and in almost every corner of the world social media, online streaming services and smartphones are constantly gaining ground in our lives. This, however, is something that appears to be happening more and more to the detriment of our relationship with books.

According to data collected by Korea’s largest bookstores, book sales in the country are in steady decline up to 4% per year. This development, of course, threatens the survival of smaller bookstores even more, at a time when online shopping is increasing its popularity and as a result bookstores cannot but invest in technology if they want to keep their customers. Moreover, the fact that Koreans have free access to high-speed internet leads, for example, in seeing subway passengers hunched over their smartphones while playing games or watching videos rather than with their nose stuck in a book. In an attempt to attract people again, it’s no longer uncommon for bookstores to even put up signs with prompts like ‘Open a book, turn off your cellphone’.

On the other hand, though, technology has definitely worked in favour of books on many levels. In addition to the proliferation of new, ‘digital’ forms of literary reviewing such as BookTube (the Winter Bookstore channel [ 서점 서점 ] being a notable example), e-books seem to be having a positive impact on the suffering book industry thanks to their affordable prices, easy use and distribution. According to data of the Publication Industry Promotion Agency of Korea, the revenue of the national publishing industry in 2018 was 2% higher than last year’s thanks to e-books.

Beyond all this, however, there is also another, deeply creative aspect of Korea’s book culture, which comes to disprove any ominous predictions.

So let’s take a rejuvenating stroll through the magical book world of Korea!

Bookcities and libraries — immobile and… ‘moving’!

• The COEX mall Starfield Library in Seoul

The COEX mall Library [ 필드 필드 몰 몰 ] is home to 50.000 titles. In its vast, public space, bibliophiles have the opportunity to browse and get lost in a bookish universe.

COEX mall Starfield Library
COEX mall Starfield Library

The themes of the available titles are countless, spanning from humanities to natural sciences, while they are written either by Korean or foreign, translated writers. One can also find magazines as well as iPads for reading e-books.
The Library is also ideal for a wide range of interesting events, such as discussions with authors or centred around specific books, poetry nights, lectures and ‘book concerts’.

• Paju Bookcity

Conceived already by the late 80s and turned to reality by the Korean state in the early 00s just outside Seoul, Paju Bookcity ( 파주 파주 도시 ) currently houses over 150 publishing houses.

Therefore, Paju Bookcity is the heart of the Korean book industry. It is a 1.5 million m2 “city”, where unique architecture, nature and human factor are combined and coexist harmoniously with art and books.

According to the purpose outline of the Bookcity Culture Foundation, it aspires to become the driving force for spreading the Korean book culture and art across the world by promoting exchanges, research, international publishing culture, organizing conferences, educational events, performances and book exhibitions both inside and outside Korea.

Paju Bookcity
Paju Bookcity -1-

In Paju Bookcity, however, there lies also another treasure – the famous Forest of Wisdom [혜 의 숲].

Situated in the centre of the bookcity, in the Munbal-dong neighbourhood , the Forest of Wisdom also holds a prominent spot in television dramas centred around books, like Chicago Typewriter and Romance is a Bonus Book; the latter one, in particular, succeeds in depicting in a wonderful and very delicate manner the human aspects of the book industry. More specifically, the exterior of the Forest of Wisdom building is supposed to be that of the publishing house ‘ Gyeoroo Publishing ‘, which appears in this series.

The trademark of the Forest of Wisdom is, of course, its library. The bookshelves in there reach 8 m high and extend for over 3 km. Most of their 200.000 titles are donations, with one section of the library hosting those by Korean scholars, intellectuals and experts in a wide array of subjects such as literature, arts, humanities and natural sciences. 20.000 of these copies lie in the centre of the Forest, thus manifesting that in there one can touch the wisdom of mankind. In another section, readers can find donations from various publishing houses. In this area resembling a book café, the visitors can wander freely among the bookshelves in search of their next readable treasure.

Bookcase Republic Of Korea Library

The way the Forest of Wisdom titles are arranged though is unique as well. Specifically, no usual method is followed, that is, by genre or author’s name, but the books are arranged by donor and publisher. This is considered to favour the visitors being pleasantly surprised by discovering new titles. Let it be noted here that the public is not allowed to borrow books and take them out of the library premises but only to read them inside it.

The specially trained volunteers called ‘ Kwondoksa ‘ ( Book Advisors ) provide valuable help in the readers’ search. They recommend books and/or new publishing houses to them and are also the only ones allowed to use the shelves’ ladders to retrieve books from the top shelves.

The Forest of Wisdom receives up to 4.000 visitors on weekends. It also includes facilities such as the Conference Room, the Multipurpose Hall and Hotel Jijihyang . In the rooms of this guesthouse, the name of which means ‘birthplace of paper’, guests have the chance to unwind and self-reflect, because instead of TVs there are only shelves filled with books! The reading area’s third section of the Forest of Wisdom is also at the guests’ disposal, connected to the guesthouse lobby and open 24 hours a day. It is the largest space of the whole site, where readers can enjoy their books at the sounds of classical music.

Paju Bookcity
Paju Bookcity -2-

A number of events also take place in the Forest of Wisdom every year, such as lectures or the Children’s Book Festival each May and the Paju Book Festival in October. In addition to its cause, of preserving great writings, this public cultural space redefines the relationship between reader and book. The bibliophiles are invited to try something different, discover hidden treasures, and re-invent their reading habits.

For book lovers, the Forest of Wisdom is truly a place of endless magic.

• Books ‘on the move’: The Book Train of Gyeongui Line

Since 2016 this Book Train travels about 124 km from Munsan Station to Yongmun Station in Gyeonggi-do province. One of its wagons is essentially a four-shelf small library with over 500 books of all kinds (novels, essays on humanities, poetry and fairytales), while it also has four electronic devices storing e-books .

The decoration of the train matches with this imaginative initiative harmoniously, as it includes mottos like ‘Books are our future’ or ‘Books unite the world’. When its doors open and close, the drawings on them make it look like a book cover that opens and closes, whereas the entire interior wall at the end of the wagon is also covered by the image of a library.

Passengers are responding positively to this ‘thinking’ train and claim that its books make their commuting less boring, while also giving them the opportunity not to resort to their smartphones for entertainment.

The purpose of the Book Train is also to host a series of monthly, informative events, such as discussions with authors or ‘book concerts’.

In order to enjoy a journey with it, one must simply have bought the usual transportation ticket.

• Books ‘on the move’: Poetry in the Seoul subway

One, however, has unexpected literary meetings in the subway of the Korean capital as well.

Already since 2008, poems started appearing on the ‘ screen doors ‘, the glass walls between the dock and the lines. As passengers wait to board, these poems give them the opportunity to escape for a little while from their routine. Over the years, the committee in charge of selecting these poems has grouped them by topic and according to the district in which each station is located—poems about youth, for example, at Children’s Grand Park station or rhymes according to the foreign population concentrated in an area, such as England, America or Nigeria at Itaewon station.

Woman in subway train standing

This initiative is also of interest to foreign visitors of the country wishing to enrich their knowledge of the Korean language. By making an effort to read the subway poems they have the special opportunity to practice and in a literary context at that!

Contrary to the mainstream reluctance of publishers to invest in publishing poetry collections, it seems that Koreans are generally accepting towards poetry or do not regard it as a lesser art. It is perhaps not by chance that many believe the quintessence of Korean literature is not prose but poetry.

“A book that inspires others may not inspire you. So find a book that does. ”

– (Romance is a Bonus Book [ 로맨스 는 별책 부록 , 2019])

The literary strolls in Korea don’t end here, though–the stops across the wondrous world of books resume in Part II. Stay tuned!

(You can also find the Greek version of this article (again, written by me ~) on the facebook page of the Korean Embassy in Greece ( 주 그리스 대한민국))

Other articles of mine for the Korean Embassy in Greece:

The Abandoned Princess Bari

Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet (English version)

Gat, ‘The Language of the Head’

Obangsaek – The Five Cardinal Colours of Korea

Daedongyeojido, the Map of the Great East (English version)

The Legend of Arang

A Stroll in the Book World of Korea – Part II

Indicative source links for this article:
Paju Bookcity official website
In South Korea, Booksellers Look for Ways to Compete – Publishers Weekly
The Poetry of, or Rather in, the Seoul Subway
Small Library Zips Along the Tracks
A Book Forest for Everyone

Cover image: Book Stay at Jijihyang in Paju Book City


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