Friday, April 02, 2010

10 Books that Influenced the Korean's View of the World

The Korean will give the podium to Mr. Ross Douthat, a columnist for the New York Times:
More than a week ago, Tyler Cowen kicked off an irresistible blogospheric listing exercise: In this case, the theme is “10 books which have influenced your view of the world.” You can find Matthew Yglesias’s list here, Will Wilkinson’s list here, Matt Continetti’s here, and many more at this link. ... Note that these are not my 10 favorite books, nor the 10 best books I’ve ever read, but the books that quickly came to mind — I was following Cowen’s “go with your gut” admonition — as having shaped my writing or pushed me in one intellectual direction or another over the years. As an experiment, I’ve also tried listing them in rough chronological order, starting with the books that influenced me as a child and working my way upward (or downward, perhaps) toward adulthood.
The Influential Books Game (New York Times)

Irresistible is right, because the Korean's eyes lit up when he read this. Books are the Korean's life. A huge part of his identity is built around the books he read in his life; in fact, it is his lifelong ambition to build a library solely consisting of the books he read.

The Korean will follow Mr. Douthat's format: these are the books that quickly came to the Korean's mind, and they are listed in a chronological manner. The same caveats apply: these are not the Korean's 10 favorite books, nor the 10 best books the Korean has ever read. One more caveat: these are not the 10 books whose entire contents the Korean wholeheartedly endorse. Many of them have their own flaws, but that has nothing to do with their influence over the Korean's mind.

Because books are so personal to the Korean, he is now switching to first person. All ages are approximate.

1.  Fisher-Price Toy Catalog (Age 6)

Yes, I'm serious. Laugh all you want for being childish, but heck, I was a child. At around age 6 while living in Korea, I somehow came to have a spiffy catalog from America that listed all Fisher-Price toys that were available for mail-order. The catalog had all these incredible toys that neither I nor any of my friends have ever seen. I read that catalog so many times, imagining playing with those toys, until the catalog eventually disintegrated in my hands one day.

The catalog was the book that confirmed to me -- who was six, mind you -- that America must be the best and the greatest country in the world. Later when I came to America, my faith was validated.

2.  Far Countries, Near Countries (먼나라 이웃나라) by Rhie Won-Bok (이원복) (Age 10)

Far Countries, Near Countries is a comic book series that discusses the history and culture of a number of different European countries, such as the Netherlands, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, etc. (The series was later expanded to include Japan, United States, and Korea itself.) The series is still one of the best selling books in Korea to date.

This book (or books, really) was the first book that made me realize that the world is a lot bigger place than Korea, and there are people who are radically different from me -- different not just in language, but in manners of thought. I remember being particularly enamored by France and their radical (by Korean standards) individualism.

(Please, no snark about Rhie's trouble with AIPAC. That little episode does not even come close to diminishing the greatness of this series.)

3. Romance of Three Kingdoms (삼국지) by Luo Guanzhong (나관중) (Age 12)

Romance of Three Kingdoms is a historical novel written in 1522. Broadly speaking, the novel (set around 180~280 A.D.) describes the demise of Han Dynasty of China and the rise and fall of the three kingdoms that followed. It is heavy on the description of various heroic kings, lords and generals, and full of war, strategy, intrigue, loyalty and betrayal. The novel is a classic in China, Japan and Korea, and more or less a required reading for everyone.

This book gave me a sense of how to be a man -- how to be a good friend, fair leader and loyal subordinate. It was Confucianism, applied.

4.  Slam Dunk by Takehiko Inoue (Age 12)

Slam Dunk is a comic book series that follows a season of Shohoku High School basketball team, which a troublemaker Sakuragi Hanamichi joins without any basketball skills just so he can impress a pretty girl (who also happened to be the sister of the team captain.) The series tracks the growth and development of each of the teammates of the Shohoku HS basketball team, each one with their own issues and problems.

I had loved sports previous to reading Slam Dunk, but this book took my love to another level. It single-handedly created a legion of basketball fans among Koreans of my age, as it masterfully depicted everything beautiful about basketball. Given how much of my life is dedicated to my love of sports, and how much of my worldview is influenced by the lens of sports, Slam Dunk certain deserves a spot in the books that influenced my intellectual development.

(So let's temporarily forget about the fact that this book is about Japanese high school basketball where the main character is a 6' 3" power forward and the tallest player in the entire series is 6' 11", but somehow everyone in the series can do a flying dunk. OK?)

5.  Hurray to Barley Rice (꽁보리밥 만세) by Cho Gyu-Ik (조규익) (Age 15) 

Hurray to Barley Rice is a collection of essays by Prof. Cho Gyu-Ik, who happened to be my father's friend. This book is not well-known at all; in fact, I would be surprised if there are more than 50 people in the world who read this book. I only read it because it was given to me for free from Prof. Cho himself.

But I loved this book. The essays are honest and humorous illustrations of Prof. Cho's childhood and everyday life. Although my parents experienced dire poverty growing up as did every Korean in their generation, they hardly ever talked about their childhood and just how different Korea was back then. When I read the witty but poignant discussions of how young Prof. Cho would deal with hunger while waiting for the barley crop to grow and mature, I gained a new perspective on Korea, and on my parents.

6.  Taebaek Mountains (태백산맥) by Cho Jeong-Rae (조정래) (Age 16)

Taebaek Mountains is a historical novel written in 1983 that describes a village divided by the Korean War. It mostly centers around two brothers -- the older one, an idealist, joins the communist North and later dies as a communist guerrilla. The younger one, a street-wise thug with little morality, ends up taking part in eradicating the guerrillas of which his brother was a part.

Taebaek Mountains was the book that confirmed my gnawing sense that my school and my country were lying to me. The communist North Koreans were humans with human motivations, not the child-killing demons with horns as I had learned in school. The people who held the power in South Korea had unclean hands. The history I had learned was false, embellished, airbrushed. It was a lot to take. 

7.  Crime and Punishment/Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (Age 17)

I read both books several times, both in Korean and in English as a part of my efforts to study English. At first I loved the story, then I began reflecting on the value of morality, and eventually, Christianity. I owe much of my sense of strong morality -- as opposed to the weak-kneed, relativist kind -- to Dostoevsky.

I recall reading somewhere that George Bernard Shaw said (I could be wrong, so don't quote me on this): "Even if all the Bibles in the world were to disappear tomorrow, we will still have Dostoevsky." I am a living proof of that quote (correct or not.) 

8.  Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley (Age 17)

This book gave me the race-consciousness that frankly is absent from many Asian Americans. I found Malcolm X to be a more compelling figure than Martin Luther King Jr., whom I thought was too much of a saint and not a real man. (Obviously I was wrong, but I was young and stupid.) Malcolm X's exceeding amount of anger and hate in his youth made the enlightenment and efforts toward conciliation later in his life even more compelling and human. Through this book, I learned the debt that I, along with all racial minorities of America and the world, owe to the Civil Rights Movement. 

9.  Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond (Age 20) 

Guns, Germs and Steel attempts to explain why Eurasian civilizations (including North Africa) have survived and conquered others, while attempting to refute the belief that Eurasian hegemony is due to any form of Eurasian intellectual, moral or inherent genetic superiority. Diamond argues that the gaps in power and technology between human societies originate in environmental differences, which are amplified by various positive feedback loops.

This book confirmed a strong conviction of mine, that history determines almost everything that happens today. History matters, and in ways that are almost imperceptible. (For example, Diamond explains that wild wheat took less time to evolve into a form that is cultivated today compared to wild corn -- which delayed the agricultural development of the Americas by a thousand years.) You ignore history at your own peril. 

10.  Wild Bill by Bruce Allen Murphy (Age 22)

Wild Bill is a biography of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who was a colorful personality to say the least. While being a hugely influential and successful Supreme Court justice (he is a very important figure in First Amendment jurisprudence and the progenitor of the environmental law,) Douglas has always wanted to be the president and lived a frustrated life, as he came close but failed multiple times with his career in politics. He also married four times -- quaint now, but a near social suicide in the 1960s and 70s -- with each wife younger and blonder than the previous.

The contours of Justice Douglas' life provided the things that I must emulate and the things I must avoid in order to be -- or, in the process of becoming -- successful. The book review by Richard Posner (himself a Court of Appeals judge) put it perfectly: "With biography and reportage becoming ever more candid and penetrating, we now know that a high percentage of successful and creative people are psychologically warped and morally challenged."

[Note: This post was up two days ago, but had to disappear for a bit for the April Fool's Day gag to work.]

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. Hear, hear on Malcolm X. That should be read, not watched.

  2. I strongly second that, kushibo. And, Korean, I loved your inclusion of the toy catalog. That type of book is more influential in many young children's lives than most will admit.

  3. Thanks for a very entertaining and informative post!

    1. Fisher-Price Toy Catalog (Age 6)

    Here's a very interesting photo of Korean women looking at a Sears-Robuck catalog while a GI watches them, taken in 1968 by Neil Mishalov who was serving in Korea.

    6. Taebaek Mountains (태백산맥) by Cho Jeong-Rae (조정래) (Age 16)

    This novel truly must have had a profound effect on especially young Koreans since the late 1980s. But it was also a product of its time.

    My sense after reading the novel was that the idealization of the guerrillas is harmful to the literary quality; those characters are not as believable as they could be. But the intellectual climate of the time must have required that. For example, the "thug brother" was to me a more interesting and true character than the older idealist brother.

    Kudos, by the way, to Cho for not bringing the two brothers to fight each other in the end of the book...

    I found Cho's later multi-volume novel Han River, depicting Korea's urbanization and development in the 1960s and 1970s, much more interesting and characters more fully developed.

  4. I also think Han River was better in literary terms than Taebaek Mountains, though I actually like Taebaek Mountains more personally. I would be lying if I said I wasn't influenced by the fact that I visited almost every landmarks mentioned in the book (since my grandmother live on the outskirts of 벌교) and that my grandparents went through the real-life version of the book's plot.

    My great-grandparents were in a situation similar to 안창민's family, except that no one in the family were guerrillas and they were really, really rich (they still own a HUGE chunk of 보성's green tea farms, even after one of my uncles pissed away the family fortune with 화투). My grandfather was a policeman during and after the Japanese Occupation, and during the NK occupation he was brought to People's Court for being a collaborator and was saved by townspeople testifying that he was the only good cop in the entire neighborhood (very similar to what happened to 안창민's mom in the novel). But because he was spared by the NK troops, he was later arrested by the SK paramilitary and was literally standing in front of a mass grave - he was in the second to the last group when apparently one of the guys in the firing squad recognized him (my granddad had saved him from other policemen during the Occupation when he was being chased by the Japanese) and whispered to him to just jump into the grave when the shots are fired, and purposefully missed his shot.

    :D So, Taebaek Mountains have a very, very special place in my heart.

  5. "(very similar to what happened to 안창민's mom in the novel)"

    Sorry, I meant "Very similar to what happened to 김범우's dad in the novel"

  6. 먼나라이웃나라!! haha
    France was my fav too; i was fascinated by the food story!

  7. I enjoyed 먼나라 이웃나라 too when I was in junior high, but later found it to contain too much bullshit, and I would definitely not buy the series for my children. It far too unabashedly over-simplifies and trivializes cultural and historic attributes through the biased lenses of the author, who claims to be an authority on the subject but is not even a qualified anthropologist or historian. Instilling narrow, ill-founded biases on foreign cultures onto people who many not have much other exposure to the subject is unhealthy, to say the least. It's too bad, because Rhie is lots of fun and is a very good narrator and illustrator. If he had closely collaborated with established experts on the respective countries, he could have produced the perfect introduction to foreign countries for young Koreans.

  8. Antti,

    Thanks for the link to the fascinating gallery. Those photos had been taken a few months before I was born. I had no idea that I was born in such a piss-poor country. LOL

    I guess that makes Korea's transformation in the four decades since then even more amazing.

    God, I hope my parents had the decency to make me wear at least a pair of white 쌍방울 panties when I played in the stream!

  9. Antti,

    One more round of thank you for those photos. Pictures of old Korea completely fascinate the Korean. Also agreed on Taebaek Mountains -- even as the Korean was reading it, he thought the description of Americans in the novel was a little over the top.


    Incredible story. Thanks.


    It was incomplete, but the Korean still thinks it is a fine book for what it set out to do. Realizing that not all of what we learned when we were young was true is a part of growing up. The small distortions in 먼나라 이웃나라 do not really diminish its value, IMO.

  10. I just read Guns, Germs, and Steel a few months ago - very good read and very thought-provoking. I do feel that sometimes culture is a key factor in development (e.g. China/Korea vs. Japan in the 19th century). But I guess Diamond is more focused on pre-1500s, and I can't find many faults with his arguments there.

    Toy catalogs were my life when I was 6, no doubt. Toys are no laughing matter!

    Just curious, do you recommend any recent fiction or non-fiction books?

  11. The Korean LOVED Schulz and the Peanuts by David Michaels, the biography of Charles Schulz, the creator of Charlie Brown and Snoopy. Among novels, The Plot Against America by Philip Roth was mesmerizing.

  12. Why would Asian-Americans owe Malcolm X anything? Their situations were completely different. The "Korean grocer" is stereotypically at odds with many of Malcolm's fans.

    I really enjoyed GG&S (even if he fails to answer the question he sets out to, lumping all of "Eurasia, the largest land-mass, together), but he completely ignores how geographic/environmental differences gave rise to evolutionary selective forces that altered the inhabitants of such reasons. Some people think there wasn't enough time for anything significant to happen during such a "short" time period, but that is just wrong. See "The 10,000 Year Explosion" by Greg Cochran & Henry Harpending. If you want to read a book by a non-expert attacking GG&S, with some flaws of its own but also landing some telling blows, you can download "Understanding Human History" for free.

  13. Korean,

    Not to piss on your parade or anything but how the hell did you narrow the list down to only ten books? I admit that I'm a voracious reader and I could, if pressed, cite 10 authors that have influenced me but not ten books. Over the course of my life I've read thousands of books, own hundreds and plan on buying hundreds more. I don't think I'm alone here. For most people who are truly educated and have broad interests, this would be a frustrating task to say the least, and probably an incomplete one.

  14. TGGP,

    Why would Asian-Americans owe Malcolm X anything? Their situations were completely different. The "Korean grocer" is stereotypically at odds with many of Malcolm's fans.

    Stereotypes have a funny way of distorting reality.

    At any rate, thank you for the recommendations. The Korean will be sure to check them out.


    If the Korean made this list right now again, it is likely that he will have 10 completely different books. The exercise was supposed to be a quick, off-the-top-of-the-head variety.

  15. Douglas,

    I agree with you that 10 books aren't nearly enough.

    you should def. do a 2-parter on this interesting-as-all-heck post and write about the other 10 books you were thinking about...

  16. Yuck, Ross Douthat. He's an ax-grinding ideologue, not a writer interested in ideas.

    But people talking about books always make me happy. In terms of my thinking, I'd have to say William James and Richard Rorty have had the biggest influence. If you're interested in a short and accessible work of philosophy, I'd recommend James' Pragmatism.

  17. Very quickly, off the top of his head:

    - Karl Llewellyn, The Bramble Bush
    - Richard Rorty, Objectivity, Relativity and Truth
    - Hyeon Jin-Geon (현진건), A Lucky Day (운수 좋은 날)
    - Lee Sang (이상), Crow's Eye View (오감도)
    - Kim Sang-Yong (김상용), Will Make a Window Toward South (남으로 창을 내겠소)
    - Cass Sunstein, Democracy and the Problem of Free Speech
    - Victor Hugo, Les Miserables
    - Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct

  18. Slamdunk is also my greatest sports influence in middle school. Practically waited every week for each chapter to be released in one of those weekly manga compilations sold at newspaper stands.
    Probably the only reason I started playing basketball regularly.

  19. Here is my top 10:

    10. Life of Pi- Yann Martel
    9. IT- Stephen King
    8. Starship Troopers- Robert Heinlein
    7. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy- Douglas Adams
    6. The Stand- Stephen King
    5. Confederacy of the Dunces- John Kennedy Toole
    4. High Fidelity- Nick Hornby
    3. Last Train to Memphis- Peter Guralnick
    2. Grapes of Wrath- John Steinbeck
    1. East of Eden- John Steinbeck

  20. hi, this is a great blog, i recently reading the comic book of professor Li, I wanna ask you when was that countries book series published in Korea? thank you very much!

  21. Super late commenting, but I bought the 먼나라 이웃나라 about Korea when I was there in February, just to help me study Korean. I am enjoying it.
    I also read a mammoth biography of Malcolm in High School that had a profound influence on me.


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