Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Book Review: 50 Famous People Who Helped Shape Korea

Title: Koreans to Remember: 50 Famous People Who Helped Shape Korea
Author: Richard Saccone
Paperback: 242 pages
Publisher: Hollym International Corporation (June 1, 1993)
ISBN-10: 1565910079
ISBN-13: 978-1565910072

I'm torn about how to review this book. On one hand, it's a very approachable reference for anyone looking to get their feet wet in the Korean history waters. It surely covers fifty memorable Koreans and provides a brief summary of their accomplishments and where you might have heard them from. For that, I applaud that author.

However, there are three major flaws that detract from the book's appeal. First, the author awkwardly introduces the birthdate and birthplace of each subject. He curiously makes such a simple task into something that turns into "So-and-so was placed upon the grounds of Earth on the fourth day in the ninth year of the calendar we use". Clearly I'm exaggerating but it's a consistent flaw. Read the book and you'll see what I'm talking about. It's just weird.

Secondly, the book is poorly marketed. The book's target audience is clearly a English speaking group yet this book is largely only found in Korea. For that matter, it's a bit out of date. Originally published in 1993, the modern presidents mentioned are sorely lacking despite an early 2000s republishing.

Lastly, and most importantly, is the cataloging of the subjects. The author breaks the book into politicians, scholars, freedom fighters, and the like. This wouldn't be an atrocious mistake had the author not listed the people in alphabetical order, too. Why on earth would he do this? The chronological order is completely out of order. A book such as this depends on a reader who can pick up the book read it cover to cover. Organizing in an topic and alphabetical-order instead of chronological order is just clumsy. This book isn't an encyclopedia and thus shouldn't try to emulate this style.

For example, in order to properly understand what made 김대중 fight for democracy and freedom, one must understand the 박정희 and 이승만 presidencies. However, since it's organized by last names, you'll have to just flip chapter to chapter to find the right order of political progression. This is assuming that the reader already has a knowledge of those three former presidents. In which case, they are probably not the target audience of the book.

Flaws aside, I enjoyed the book and it introduced a few new names and some insights that I hadn't considered. I respect the author's work but I question his editing preference. As he has penned a few other books on Korea and lived in Korea for well over a decade, I appreciate his insight and thank him for his contribution to Korean history. Just please, for the love, reorganize this book.

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Here's the thing. I love how this book is designed to help those with little or no knowledge of Korean history get into the subject. It's such a well-needed type of book. However, why on earth is it printed the way it is? Despite this and a few small historical inaccuracies (such as who actually murdered Queen Min) I liked the book. I hope more of these easy-to-pick-up books get printed.


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