Radical books in Seoul redux

Greetings. It’s been a long, productive and stressful time since I last updated this blog, and that’s not in any danger of changing. The tl;dr version is I’ve had to put my writing energy into publishable things rather than a blog. But in the meantime I’ve amassed a lot of photos. So here you go: what I hope to be a series of occasional visual updates about Seoul, Korea, fashion, politics and all-sorts.

Until yesterday I believed I’d found the only used bookshop in Seoul with leftist literature, in an underground mall near Myeongdong, the tourist area. But a friend introduced me to another underground bookshop in Sinchon, a major student neighbourhood. I’d walked by this particular shop a dozen times and never noticed it, because the entrance is a stairwell surrounded by stacks of old magazines. But go downstairs and it’s a treasure trove: aisle upon aisle, organized by section instead of thrown together randomly, and unlike the first place, the owner doesn’t chain smoke so you can stay there without your eyes watering. Oh yeah, and it’s ₩2-3000 ($2.50-$3.50) for softcovers and ₩4-6000 for hardcovers. It looks like a library:


That’s world history, organized by country, equal parts Korean and English with a smattering of Japanese, French and German books mixed in. The difference between this place and a library is that sometimes the aisle tapers to nothing:


That’s American history hiding behind those boxes. One day I hope to actually see what’s there, because a lot of the selection is US military discards, and the army are voracious readers, apparently. For example:


John Kenneth Galbraith’s How To Control the Military. Partially obscured by the dust jacket is ‘Property of US Army’. Know your enemy, I guess, or just gallows humour. But it’s not all military discards: there are a lot of reprints from Korea’s democracy movement days in the 80s and 90s, and a large minority of that movement were also anti-capitalist. Want a copy of Marx-Engels Works in the original German?


There’s a good selection from Progress Publishers – the Soviet foreign languages imprint – scattered throughout the stacks:


Literary theory and literature, feminism, sociology, politics, even someone’s highschool yearbook from 1957:


I couldn’t take it all with me; as it was, I stayed till I was dizzy from hunger and still didn’t see everything. But I managed to find some great obscurities:


… a country-by-country takedown of all the terrible things the Stalinists did in the 3rd World.


… a bootleg copy of Trotsky’s takedown of Stalin.


… a Marxist study of the second neoliberal experiment (the first being Chile under Pinochet), when the ruling class decided to stop funding NYC public services and engineer a crisis to break the city unions and lower property values.


I wasn’t going to get this, but passages like the following changed my mind:

I have a sense of humour that would nearly cause me to laugh at a funeral, providing it wasn’t my own. But when I am dealing with ignorant swine of police, my humor deserts me, and all I want to do is to needle them as best I can according to their particular brand of insolence. I started singing Gaelic songs, very rebel ones at that, and soon a lot of the other blokes joined in too.
    The fracas started on our way back from the cemetery. It was short and sweet like an ass’s gallop but in those few moments I lived a full life’s span, and in the years that followed I was never to forget them.

The author’s photo clinched it. This is what authors should look like:


The bookshop reminded me of why I love reading: the vast number of stories, issues and lovers of language who have contributed to our collective memory about who we are and how to change the world.


3 thoughts on “Radical books in Seoul redux

  1. Wow! If only that set of Collected Works are in English. We could use hard copies of one of those. One colleague also found a 5-volume set copy of Mao’s Selected Work in a used books shop here. Unfortunately, it was also in German! I’ll try to retrieve the photo from Facebook.

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