Blogging the Bookshelf

Blogging my bookshelf – one book at a time

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Books and Cross Cultural Understanding – “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea” – Barbara Demick

September 20th, 2011 · No Comments · Culture, Fiction, History, Humanism, Reading Related, Totalitarianism

At the University, behind the librarian’s desk, was a small selection of Western books that had been translated into Korean. They were forbidden to the general public; only top students could have access to them. At some high level of the government, somebody had decided that the nation needed an intellectual elite with some knowledge of Western Literature…

Jung-sang’s favourite was Gone With the Wind. The melodramatic style of the book was not unlike the tone of Korean fiction. He was struck by the parallels between the American Civil War and the Korean War. It was amazing to him how vicious the fighting could be between one people – clearly the Americans were as impassioned as the Koreans. He thought the Americans better off for the fact that they ended up one country, not divided like the Koreans. He admired the heroine, Scarlett O’Hara, for her pluckiness. She reminded him a little of North Korea’s own cinematic heroines who were always in the dirt, fighting for their land, but Scarlett was much more of an individualist – not a quality celebrated in North Korean literature. And North Korean heroines most certainly didn’t have love affairs…

He even read How to Win Friends and Influence People, the 1930s self-help classic by Dale Carnegie. It was his first exposure to Western ideas about business, and it shocked him. He couldn’t believe the advice that Carnegie was giving readers.

“Learn to love, respect, and enjoy other people”.

How could a product of the American Capitalist system write something like this? Jung-sang asked himself. Weren’t all capitalists enemies who lived by the law of the jungle – kill or be killed?

I LOVE this anecdote. A paradigm example of the power of the book to open up another world to someone and to promote understanding.As an end note to this, Jung-sang becomes a devotee of Orwell after he defects to South Korea.

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