Every year, when the Nobel Prize for Literature draws near, the Korean press begins its annual (metaphorical) campout on Ko Un’s lawn. The papers become full of articles assessing his chances, and non-Koreans such as myself who know a slight bit about Korean literature, are avidly sought out by the press to comment on Ko and the award, perhaps even Korean literature in general. During the remainder of the year, the newspapers repeatedly publish articles worrying about the success of Korean fiction in translation, this despite the fact that it is actually doing a lot better. Problems are assessed and blame is assigned, but in none of this is ever mentioned the one thing that Koreans, and particularly Korean university students and graduates, could do to help. And that is one simple thing ? read more. Reading more would not only help extend the reach of Korean literature, but would also help Korea as a whole and Koreans as individuals.
Korea is among the most literate countries in the world. Since King Sejong’s creation of Hangul in the mid-15th century, Korean literacy rates have improved to the point that in 2002, the UN estimated the rate to be 97.9 percent. Korea is also, according to United Nations SPI basic education rates, the third most educated nation in the world. You would think, with all that good news, that Korea would also be a country with a high reading rate, but unfortunately this is not a true. In fact, in OECD rankings of reading for pleasure, while Korean students are slightly below average in reading for pleasure before university, after graduation the numbers shift dramatically, and in 2005 NOP World surveyed reading for pleasure rates across the world, and in that survey Korea ranked dead last.
Why is this a problem? There are many reasons. Let us begin with that Nobel Prize for Literature. Most of my students, and most Korean adults I have met here, would have a hard time describing recent Korean literature. While everybody can talk about classic stories that might be covered on the Suneung, such as Hwang Sun-won’s Sonagi, very few people can talk about KoUn’s poetry, and even fewer about Yi Mun-yol’s work, or Kim Young-ha, or that of poet Kim Hye-soon. If Koreans cannot talk about their own literature, who will ever hear about it, particularly overseas? If Korea really wants its literature to succeed, to become representative of Korea overseas, Koreans themselves need be reading that literature and talking about it. Otherwise it is doomed to be a marginalized and shrinking literature, even within Korea.
It leads toasecond problem. If Koreans do not read literature, Korean literature will cease being published. In this case, Korea faces the threat of its native literature being replaced by flashy imported literature like that of Haruki Murakami, or evergreen imported literature like that of Dickens, F.Scott Fitzgerald, or Jane Austen. If this happens a critical cultural and historical, for Korean literature is deeply based on Korean history, resource will be lost.
But there are more practical reasons to read as well. Korean newspapers often talk about the need to increase creativity, particularly in the context of a Korean education system, which often focuses on ‘the test’ and not creativity. Guess what? Reading leads to increased creativity and more relaxed thinking. A study by University of Toronto researchers (As reported in Australia’s Daily Mail) led by Professor MajaDjikic, indicates that reading a short story leads to less “cognitive closure.” Cognitive closure is the process by which the human mind, when collecting knowledge latches on to early evidence, “freezes” on that evidence and becomes incapable of acquiring new evidence, thus limiting both rationality and creativity. Increasing levels of creativity in Korea is not only empowering to individuals, but would help the nation as a whole.
And there is more. According to the Huffington Post (“Sixteen Major Advantages of Being a Book Lover”) book readers are also better writers, have better brain connectivity, and have better vocabularies. In other words, readers are smarter! Also, according to the Huffington Post (“Seven Unconventional Reasons Why You Absolutely Should Be Reading Books”) scientific studies show that that reading can relieve stress, potentially stave of Alzheimer’s Disease, help you sleep better, and make you more empathetic. In other words, reading for pleasure makes you a better person mentally, physically, and psychologically.
I think it is clear what I am going to say in conclusion. While university life has its own demands, and life after university has even bigger ones, it is clear that one thing that should not be sacrificed to these demands is reading. According to NOP, Korea’s reading rate is just over three hours a week while the highest reading rate is closer to six hours a week. That amount of time adds upto one novel, or several short stories per week. With all the benefits of reading to the individual, their workplace, and to Korea, reading for pleasure seems like an obvious and sensible thing to do. So, each week, get out there and read a book. You owe it to yourself.
Charlea Montgomery firstname.lastname@example.org
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