Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Book Review: Korea Bug: The best of the zine that infected a nation

Title: Korea Bug: The best of the zine that infected a nation
Editor: J. Scott Burgeson
Softcover: 374 pages
Publisher: EunHaeng NaMu; 1st edition (September 8, 2005)
ISBN-10: 8956601097
ISBN-13: 978-8956601090

Too much hype and not enough substance. The curiously titled compilation of the best articles from the author's self-published zine that supposedly infected a nation largely lets down despite claims of being representative of the underground expatriate community. What the almost four hundred page long book amounts to is being mainly a collection of translated interviews with albeit interesting people in Korea though it lacks a certain credible charm.

Granted, the source material for the book is rather dated, much clocking in at over ten years since originally published, yet the interviews still hold some insight into admittingly rarely untouched realms of published content. Burgeson should also be held in high regard for being a good writer, which he most certainly is despite the bulk of the book being essentially a transcription of taped interviews. Also worth prasing is the book's meaty introduction most of all for its fascinating and amazingly detailed look into the history of zines in Korea. Lots of good history to be found which he admirably and thoroughly covers with careful attention.

However, the occasional personal references to drug use and the like are off-putting and distracting. Burgeson also comes off as surprisingly old hat in his discontent for the internet and its new wave of expats who self publish effortlessly on blogs and forums. A trailblazer like himself would seemingly welcome the new addition of expat writers to the scene if not it threatened by his own niche on writing about Korea, it seems.

Bug is a decent read worthy of a quick glance at best. For those who care, his best form is found in his ability to research, dissect and write about obscure topics in a delightfully deadpan manner. However, having had read the best of his old zine, I don't feel like I've missed much of the rest. Taken with a grain of salt, it's an alright read at best. Frankly, I've seen better on blogs.

- - -

As much it seems I'm ripping apart this final project of a seemingly long dead zine, I don't mean to say that it's garbage; it's just not this mind blowingly infectious like the back of the book praises leads it on to be. Perhaps I'm one for humility but then again maybe his style just rubs me the wrong way. How else am I supposed to revere the musings of a guy who hocked the original source material on the streets of 인사동 and smoked pot with the best of them? Maybe I got the guy wrong but such candidness seems inappropriate; but then again, maybe writing about irreverence is what the author intended and perhaps therein lies the appeal. Actually, I'm pretty sure that is his angle and for that, he plays the angle quite well.

I will say that while his introduction might be a bit longer for other readers' tastes, I found it to be very agreeable. Of course, it's about a topic that very much interests me so objectivity be damned. Burgeson's guided tour into short lived self-published zines put out by Peace Corps volunteers is surely nostalgic for those who remember such times. Burgeson truly is a good writer; something that no casual but negatively inclined book review can deny. This is especially true of his first chapter exposing five strange books written about Korea by "honkies". A job well done in combining truly perplexing books and cleverly aimed commentary.

As mentioned in the review, his glaring weaknesses outshine the possible informative and entertaining writing style. Of course, seeing as how this review is written electronically on a blog, I have a natural biasedness towards embracing the internet and blogs in particular. However, I do acknowledge that internet anonymity will likely never take over the centuries-long tradition of written print, but that's exactly my point. Electronic media is still in relative infancy and thus to do anything but at least recognize it for its potential and future is to be automatically labeled as old school. I have no false notions that the iPhone, Kindle or Blogger writing platform will replace the feel and respectability of a hardbound text anytime soon but the future is uncertain. What can be said for sure already is that self published print zines are a dying, if not already, dead media along with more resource laden and ad revenue-driven magazines who haven't adopted or adapted to an electronic delivery business plan. But then again, perhaps I'm jumping the gun a bit. After all, the book that I just got around to reading was published five years ago.

Just my two cents. Having never met the guy, I can't really say I understand where he's coming from but I do commend him for having pursued something that he believed strongly in. If only my Korean was good to read his newest publication 대한민국 사용후기, I could get a better look at the author's intent. For what it's worth, the man seems to be able to balance quirky controversy and witty intellect with the best of them as evidenced by his promotional video. Whether it's your style of humor or not, I get the distinct feeling that Burgeson's got tough skin and is plenty happy with his work.


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