Books on Korea and Korean culture

One of the things that has become apparent to me over time is that it's actually quite difficult to find good resources on Korean history, culture, and literature, especially with any real depth beyond tourist-level introductions or touching on periods before the twentieth century. If you walk into an average American bookstore—or even a very good one—you'll usually find not only that there are many fewer books on Korea than on its neighbors China and Japan, but also that what books there are focus mainly on two subjects: the Korean War and modern North Korea.

Those of us looking for English-language resources to better understand the deep past of Korea and its/our cultural heritage need more than this. In today's world, with the sudden surge in the popularity of Korean pop culture (the "Hallyu Wave"), comes a desire to connect with a culture that has a deeper past—and deeper meaning—than the mix of hip-pop, K-dramas, skin products, spicy food, and a madman with missiles that many people worldwide have come to know. (And, indeed, to have one's culture be perceived as more than just these things.) It has occurred to me that there is a real need for a reading list for KADs, and perhaps later-generation Korean-Americans more generally, that pulls together some of the best research and writing on Korea. I was rather surprised to find that there is no bibliography quite like this online.

So I decided to build one. Like the other reading lists and lists of resources on this website, it is doubtlessly incomplete—and I am particularly aware that, to someone who has spent real time engaging with Korea in a university setting, it may seem shallow. That said, just as in the case of all the other resources here, I welcome suggestions and additions, as well as recommendations for myself! This list will update as continuously as I manage to discover new books, so please do return early and often.

Korean History

Michael Seth: A History of Korea: From Antiquity to the Present (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011) 
Seth's book is the most recent general history of Korea, include pre-modern times, that I could find in English. There is also a two-volume version, but the single-volume edition seemed both cheaper and roughly equivalent in page length. Most usefully for further study, there is a fairly extensive bibliography, which I plan on raiding eventually. My experience has been that this is the equivalent of a decent survey class on Korean history. The layout of the book will give you some sense of where Korean historiography balances: roughly half the book covers Korea up until the Japanese occupation, and the second half covers the twentieth century. For those of us who care about connecting historiography with primary sources, this book pairs well with the 2-volume set by Peter Lee mentioned just below.

Peter H. Lee, editor: Sourcebook of Korean Civilization, 2 vol. (Columbia UP, 1993)
It is what it sounds like. Invaluable for its thoughtful presentation of an array of Korean primary sources, which individually would be quite difficult to find, in English translation with contextualizing essays. It is, in effect, a historical and to some extent cultural equivalent of a "Norton Anthology" for Korea. Upsides here include extensive footnotes connecting Korean texts to Chinese, Japanese, and Sanskrit material, as well as an index that supplies hanja for names and key terms—invaluable for those of us contemplating someday learning classical Chinese.

For the time being, as I myself am working through the books above, I strongly suggest that anyone with more specific interests consult the indices of the works above. Peter Lee and William Theodore de Bary are big names in Korean historiography, and I get the impression that it's worthwhile to read anything they write.

Korean Literature

  • David McCann, ed. and trans.: Early Korean Literature: Selections and Introductions (Columbia UP, 2000)
  • David McCann, ed.: The Columbia Anthology of Modern Korean Poetry (Columbia UP, 2004)
  • Peter H. Lee, ed.: Anthology of Korean Literature: From Early Times to Nineteenth Century (University of Hawaii Press, 1983)
  • Peter H. Lee, ed.: Modern Korean Literature: An Anthology (University of Hawaii Press, 1990)
  • Bruce Fulton, Youngmin Kwon, eds.: Modern Korean Fiction: An Anthology (Columbia UP, 2005)
  • Marshall Pihl, Bruce Fulton, Ju-chan Fulton, eds.: Land of Exile: Contemporary Korean Fiction (Routledge, 2007)
  • Bruce Fulton, ed.: Waxen Wings: The Acta Koreana Anthology of Short Fiction from Korea (Koryo Press, 2011)

Anchors for getting started. Note well that the scholars and publishers to watch here are, again, Peter Lee, as well as David McCann, the Koreanist at Harvard who has done so much good work to bring Korean poetry into English (see his translation of Kim's Azaleas, below), and Bruce Fulton, holder of a recent new chair in Korean studies at the University of British Columbia; and then Columbia University Press and University of Hawaii Press, both of which have strong commitments to Korean literature, culture, history, and scholarship—as well as the Dalkey Archive's new series, noted below.


The Dalkey Archive's "Library of Korean Literature" series, ongoing, including:
  • Lee Ki-Ho: At Least We Can Apologize (사과 는 잘 해요), trans. Christopher J. Dykas (Dalkey Archive Press, 2013) – Reads a bit like Kafka, with an appreciation for the absurd. The sense of Korean culture here is indirect, as the book eschews thick description and relies for at least some of its effect on a sense of the place of apology in Korean etiquette and culture. Read Ed Park's remarks on the novel, and the series as a whole, in the New Yorker
  • Hyun Ki Young: One Spoon on This Earth, trans. Jennifer M. Lee (Dalkey Archive Press, 2013) – Hyun's memoir of a childhood on the island of Jeju to the south of the Korean peninsula traces through autobiography the brutal suppression of a leftist uprising in the 1950s and the Korean War immediately thereafter. For the reader trying to get a sense of Korean culture, it's most striking for the evocation grinding poverty of pre-industrial Korea's agricultural economy between the wars, and the capturing of small details about what life in the provinces was like. Though it suffers from rough translation at points, Hyun can read a bit like a rural Knausgaard in his attention to small details, if Knausgaard had anything as momentous as political violence to turn his pen on. 
Kim Sowǒl: Azaleas: A Book of Poems, trans. David McCann (orig. 진달래꽃, 1925; Columbia UP, 2007)
The best explanation comes from McCann's foreword: "Azaleas tells a story. A series of juxtaposed images and an array of voices combine to bring a young Korean writer from the more northern, P'yǒngyang area into the modern literary world of Seoul, the cosmopolitan capital of Korea. What he did when he left the north, then while he stayed in or around Seoul for two years as a student or writer, and under what terms he left it to return to the north constitute the story of this book... I find a close literary resemblance to Rimbaud and his 'Le bateau ivre,' that long, brilliant poem about throwing loose the lines and sailing down the river and away; but also a biographical mirroring between two poets who wrote youthfully and brilliantly, then gave it all up and walked off, Rimbaud to Africa and his series of failed business enterprises and collapsing health, Sowǒl back to the region near P'yǒngyang that he had left earlier, to a job as a regional newspaper distributor and a life descending into depression, drink, and an early death, perhaps deliberate, from an overdose of opium. 

"Classic" Literature

Toegye: Ten Diagrams on Sage Learning (성학 십도 or 聖學十圖)
Bak or Park Jiweon: Yeolha Ilgi (열하일기 or 熱河日記)
Lady Hong of Hyegyeong: Memoirs Written in Silence (한중록 or 閑中錄)
The Tale of Chunhyang (촌향전 or 春香傳)

Contemporary Literature

Park Wan-Suh: Who Ate Up All the Shinga? An Autobiographical Novel (1992; Columbia UP, 2009)
Hahn Moo-Sook: And So Flows History (University of Hawaii Press, 2005)
Young-ha Kim: I Have the Right to Destroy Myself (Harcourt, 2007)
Shin Kyung-Sook: Please Look After Mom (엄마를 부탁해) (2008; Vintage, 2012)
Kyung-Sook Shin: I'll Be Right There (Other Press, 2014)
Kyung-Sook Shin: The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness (Pegasus, 2015)

Children's Books in English

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the children's books of Linda Sue Park. Park did more than any other writer to craft my understanding of Korean history, culture, and identity as a child. Her books breathe drama and humanity into periods of Korean history that would otherwise be difficult to make speak for a young audience, and exposed me at an early age to some of the most popular touchstones of Korean culture: celadon pottery, kites, the Japanese occupation, good food. The work that Park has done is just as important as any historian or scholar, and I imagine that I as well as a generation of KADs and Korean-Americans owe her a great deal for helping us learn about, appreciate, and take pride in our culture and history early on in life. 

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