I was on vacation last month, in the United States, and the wife and I rented a car in Reno Nevada, then drove to Mt. Lassen, Ashland Oregon, Medford Oregon, Coos Bay Oregon, then down the California coast to Fort Bragg and across California back to Reno Nevada.
What in the world does this have to do with Korean literature? Well, my wife is a crazy bookshopper and so one of the things we did was went on Google and mapped the used bookstores in every major town we visited. The map below, for example, shows the bookstores in Ashland Oregon. And we visited every one of them.
We stopped at somewhere between 40 and 50 bookstores.
At each of those bookstores I asked about Korean literature, and at each of those bookstores the cashiers/owners were utterly stumped.
I also asked for the books I knew should be there – Kim Young-ha’s Your Republic is Calling You and Shin Kyung-sook’s Please Look After Mom. To my dismay only three bookstores had either of the books (two stores had Mom, and one had Republic) and no store had both. At the stores that did not have the books I asked if the books had ever been stocked. As far as the clerks could determine, they never had.
I’m not sure what to make of this – it’s boggling, particularly with respect to Please Look After Mom, which was a legitimate NY Times bestseller.
As if it were necessary to drive the point in any deeper, in Berkeley CA the
Eastwind (LOL a quick check of that link seems to indicate they went out of business – probably didn’t offer enough Korean books) bookstore which describes itself as:
Your source for Asian American literature, Asian studies, Ethnic Studies, language learning, traditional Chinese medicine and martial arts books.
had only 8 books on Korean culture (in total
Also now a dead link) and one copy of Please Look After Mom stuffed away in a corner (and, yeah, that counts as one of the two copies I found on my three week trip).
I’m still trying to puzzle this out. Of course there wouldn’t be a lot of Korean literature out there – it’s success is still gestational – but its complete lack (and with two successful books in the last two years) suggests that the larger lack of awareness of Korea is having an impact on books. After all, if a reader walked into Eastwind and discovered no books from Japan, they would be rightly shocked if Japan were simply not represented. Yet this is seen as normal for Korea.
My initial thought is that this means that a merely translational approach to the problem is bound to fail – the books will not show up in the bookstores.
Social media – it works for Hallyu, why can’t it work for Korean literature.
HINT: I mean the Wikipedia Project and support of fan-sites (they are coming out!) on the web…
Frankly, the whole thing left me a bit depressed.