Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Book Review: The Dawn of Modern Korea

Title: The Dawn of Modern Korea
Author: Andrei Lankov
Paperback: 376 pages
Publisher: EunHaeng NaMu (December 10, 2007)

ISBN-10: 895660214X
ISBN-13: 978-8956602141

Dawn of Modern Korea is a light collection of beefed-up articles originally published at the Korea Times by North Korean expert and Kookmin University professor Andrei Lankov. The collection reads smoothly cover to cover as well as in a non-contiguous manner. Curious about the establishment of the Blue House, telephones or Chilsung Cider? Turn to the chapter and have at it. This book is full of firsts and more than likely whatever you're thinking of is bound to be in here.

One of my favorite aspects of the book is the inclusion of both romanization systems. When a new term is introduced in Korean, the author provides the word in both the McCune–Reischauer and Revised Romanization. I hope other authors follow this trend in absence of printing the actual word in Korean in parathesis.

One also has to respect a man whose first language is not English to write such a good book. Having said that, there is a certain flair that is missing from this book. The articles are a bit formulaic and somewhat dry. The point gets across but there's little fun in getting from point A to point B. The occasional turn of phrase and tongue-in-cheek reference are delightfully appreciated but they are few and far between.

In addition, the photos included are a mixed blessing. They compliment the book nicely and appropriately in many cases but in several articles they just seem so out of place. In one instance the subject was about the original author of the national anthem but the included photo was of an intersection. Furthermore the cover of the book is used twice - one quite appropriately about the first automobile and the other for a section on prostitution. One can't help but get the 'working the street corner' vibe from this curious choice.

If it sounds like I'm ripping the book apart rest assure that I had a blast reading it. Although Lankov's writing style isn't my favorite, I like Lankov's approach and choice of topics. The histories more than make up for whatever writing flair may or may not be missing from this excellent collection of firsts. It's a good read and well worth reading.

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It's a shame that this book might get compared to Robert Neff's arguably better recent publication because this book is good in its own right. I like both for similar reasons but I still prefer Neff's depth and story-telling ability over Lankov's 'just the facts, ma'am' overview. Plus, Lankov's book had a few more typographical errors than is usually acceptable for a print. When the error count gets to be close to ten, it gets harder to forgive.

But like I mentioned, this is still a good read full of great history and well worth picking up for anyone looking for an introduction to Korea's transition to modernity. Professor Lankov's work is indeed a stand alone accomplishment with a wide appeal.


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