Thursday, April 1, 2010

Book Review: Early Korean Encounters with the United States and Japan

Title: Early Korean Encounters with the United States and Japan
Author: Young Ick Lew
Hardcover: 249 pages
Publisher: Royal Asiatic Society, Korean Branch (January 1, 2007)
ISBN-10: 8995442484
ISBN-13: 978-8995442487

I have a lot of good things to say about this book. It's eloquently written, follows a natural progression and features a fantastic collection of endnotes and bibliographies for further reading. A verifiable expert, Dr. Young Ick Lew has done his homework and you'd be a fool to not have read this.

I must admit I was skeptic in picking up a collection of six separately written essays that seemingly might overlap and run the risk of sounding redundant. However, despite the similar topic and the sheer marvel that they were written individually and spread out a span of almost thirty years, this little book is a must read for anyone with even a slight interest in Korean history; specifically in the span between 1876 (the Treaty of Ganghwa) and 1910 (just before the forced annexation of Korea by Japan).

First off the bat, Lew writes beautifully. I can say with confidence how incredibly impressed I am with his writing and honestly amazed that English is not his first language. I can also say that I was embarrassed at the number of words I had to look up in the dictionary. Come on, when was the last time you really used "gendarmerie", "repudiate" or "scion" in a sentence? I suppose I am a little rusty but thankfully also a bit inspired to step my own writing up a level or two. Fortunately, Lew's occasional use of upper level English or a Latin phrase or two does not detract from the overall message, though. Make no mistake, the book reads cleanly from start to finish.

Although the specific time period and subject matter are not exactly begging to be written about in English, Lew presents the biographies, stories and chain of events with such grace that it breathes fresh air for those already familiar withe the order of events as well as serves as an excellent primer for the uninitiated. If I were to recommend a book for those with no knowledge of what transpired before 1910, this would be at the top of my list.

The book isn't going to win any beauty contests with its total lack of photos save for the cover, but Early Korean Encounters is a text of adequate length and does contribute greatly to the field. With the final chapter covering Korean studies historiography and the formation and contributions of the Royal Asiatic Society - Korea Branch (RASKB), there's little reason to ignore this brilliant little red book.

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I bought this book at a RASKB function in January but only got around to reading it two weeks ago. I burned through it in my commute and enjoyed every page. I was especially pleased to find the last chapter having very little to do with the rest of the book. The last chapter covers the history of Korea as written by Western sources. This was of particular interest to me for obvious reasons.


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