Must-have books in your bookshop

Must-haves in Your Stock (II)

Part I of Must-haves in Your Stock

By HeeJin Lee

It’s great to hear from those of you who have also been thinking about your must-haves. One bookshop that carries an eclectic selection in addition to the regulars found in any bookshop is the City Lights Books in San Francisco. The American sister bookshop to George Whitman’s Shakespeare & Company in Paris (not to be confused with Sylvia Beach’s store by the same name; for an account of Whitman’s store and the relationship between the two stores, I recommend Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co. by Jeremy Mercer) has a Beat Literature & History section, a Dada & Surrealism section, and a Green section. Check out the bookshop online here: www.citylights.com.

The next must-have category for me is:

  • Introduction to Korea
Korea Old Palace Buildings

While I came to the States with my family when I was young, I have maintained a strong connection with my home country. In the States, my parents and I used to count the number of English-language books on Korea available in bookshops or libraries that we visited. What started out as a childhood counting game has turned into a personal mission of sorts to share my fondness for Korea with others, all the more since I studied Korean Studies in college. In my bookshop, I plan to have a Korea section which would include language instruction books, travel guides, history books, and Korea-related literature (English-language works about Korea and works by Korean authors).

Despite my penchant for all things Korean, I have to admit that I haven’t read much Korean literature in English. So I jumped at the opportunity to read The Calligrapher’s Daughter: A Novel by the Korean-American author Eugenia Kim. Based on the life of the author’s own mother, the novel tells the story of Najin and her family during the Japanese colonization of Korea. Overall, I liked the book for the glimpse it gave into all levels of Korean society during the early 20th Century, as well as the authenticity of its storyline. I was particularly fascinated by Najin’s life at court in Seoul. Najin spends a part of her youth as a playmate to Princess Deokhye, the youngest member of the last Korean royal family, at a time when the royal family was desperately trying to hold on to their country through their traditions while grappling with Western-style modernization.

Some reviewers have complained about the overt role that Christianity plays in the novel’s plot. Najin hails from a devout family, and later marries a minister’s son who travels to America to become a seminary student. Throughout the novel, Najin frames her thoughts in reference to God and the church. I’ve also come across reviews that praise the book precisely for these and other religious details in the storyline. Personally, I don’t consider the book to be a work of Christian literature; rather, I see the references to Christianity to be another historical detail. During the Japanese occupation, churches provided cover for Koreans wanting to meet with each other to discuss political issues of the day, particularly in relation to Korean independence. In light of this historical fact, it isn’t surprising that Christianity played a significant role in Najin’s family, who worked for independence during the occupation.

Modern Seoul

I’m looking forward to reading more English-language works by Korean authors in the future. Next, I’ll be reading The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee.

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  • […] Part 2 of HeeJin’s article is now published here.. […]

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  • Thank you for the kind words about THE CALLIGRAPHER’S DAUGHTER. I identify with HeeJin Lee’s early search in bookstores for books in English about Korea, which was among the reasons my book came into being. As I began researching this book, I read everything I could by and about Korean Americans, and initiated an online collection of brief reviews of such titles at http://bookoblate.blogspot.com/. (The reviews are less opinion pieces than overviews of the texts.) Happily, there are now several hundred more books about Korea and by Korean Americans than when I began this project. And I, too, am eager to read THE SURRENDERED by the formidable Chang-rae Lee. Thanks again.

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