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A Society Easily Hurt: Readers In Search of Emotional Essays

 

2018.05.30

 

A list of bestselling books at times can be perceived as a miniature version of a society. Especially at times like now when far fewer people are buying books, the act of purchasing a book reflects a person's strong want to own a book even at the expense of paying one's hard-earned money. Not only do trendy books sell, but books that accurately secure society's general flow and emotions do well. From that perspective, looking at bestsellers becomes an act of analysis into a society.

 

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At present time in 2018, emotional essays are seeing no end to their fame in South Korean bookstores. For industry leaders like Kyobo Book Centre and Aladin last year, the bestselling book in 2017 was Lee Ki-ju's Temperature of Language. The book shows very well the author's career as a speech writer for the presidential office following years as a journalist. Previously, Lee was known for his books on writing and dialogue but for Temperature of Language, he collected phrases and pieces of writing he had felt were interesting and introduced them to readers along with his own commentary. The essays in the book are rather short, but they present themselves as soft whispers to readers who find themselves in a number of personal situations.

 

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Even when excluding Temperature of Language, emotional collections of essays dominated bestseller lists in 2017. Yoon Hong-gyun's A Lesson in Self-Esteem (Simple Life) stresses training to recover self-esteem and learning how to love oneself. The author is a psychiatrist and an expert in self-esteem and he tells authors to release themselves from feeling frustrated and let go of any inferiority complexes or feelings of helplessness. There were many books on the person's psyche by psychiatrists long before Yoon's book, but few had made it on bestsellers lists like this book did. It was rare for a book that stressed happiness for individuals and encouraged readers to be positive to receive that much love from readers.

 

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If Temperature of Language and A Lesson in Self-Esteem were written in a traditional format where the author speaks to the reader, bookstores have seen more books over the past year that use easily recognizable comics or animation for essay collections. Kim Shin-hoe's I'm Glad I'm Living Like Bono Bono (Nol) would be a representative case. This book used Mikio Igarashi's wildly popular manga character Bono Bono to convey essays that utilize phrases or illustrations from Igarashi's original work. It was a meaningful way to approach readers as it was a transformation of an existing work. After the book showed good performance in the book market in South Korea, a similar publication using Winnie the Pooh was released to much popularity. As such, expectations are high other essays based on previously popular material or works will continue to be released.

 

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Meanwhile, works that became popular on social media are now regaining attention in book form. On broadcasting channel SNB, a program called 'The Woman Who Reads Stories' was launched in 2014 and since then, the program has seen more than 800,000 unique visitors to its Facebook, Instagram and Pikicast accounts. It is famous for collecting stories from ordinary people via social media and offering touching responses to them. The essays that were offered over the past some five years have been reintroduced to readers through The Woman Who Reads Stories (Aureum) and I Like Myself Just the Way I am (Hummingbird) over the course of two years. These books were marketed to readers by telling them they offered more content that was not available on social media, enticing readers who had been following the program on social media platforms.
Aside this, other essay collections have aimed to tap into the emotions of readers. Books covers or key pages usually have a pastel toned color and simple illustrations can be found adorning them. The titles of the books refrain from using vague analogies but rather try to get to the point quickly. If essay collections of old tended to focus on narrating the author's life or experiences, today's essay collections are written based on common occurrences. Temperature of Language uses writing found in everyday life while I Am Glad I'm Living Like Bono Bono uses famous content. There are other books that aim to gain popularity with content that has already seen much attention on social media. Meanwhile, emotional essay collections that have a psychological strain have not been as popular with the exception of A Lesson in Self-Esteem.
Then why are emotional essays so popular in South Korea? Up until a few years ago, the Korean book market was flooded with self-development books. There were many books that stressed hard work now would result in fruition someday or those that encouraged individuals to try hard for success. In the mid-2000s, Joachim de Posada's Don't Eat the Marshmallow (21st Century Books) or Kim Nan-do's It Is Youth Because It Hurts (Sam And Parkers) are two good examples. However, low economic growth that remained unchanged for many years and burgeoning youth unemployment left many questioning the meaning of 'trying hard'. Rather, more people found themselves seeking immediate happiness and comfort.
In 2016 and 2017, South Korea saw the rise of YOLO(You Only Live Once) and 'small but firm happiness from everyday life'. The latter originates from a Haruki Murakami novel. Both do not urge individuals to challenge or change themselves. They encourage them to live their life to the fullest where they are. These two concepts do not advise people to wait now for bigger fun later, but to be happy immediately. 
Individuals in today's society wish for their limited capabilities or wounds to be accepted as they are as we all live in a society where individuals are easily hurt despite whatever advice is given to them. They wish to live like the characters in animations like Bono Bono or Winnie the Pooh where no worries are evident. In exchange for using their brains, they wish for their self-esteem to be accepted through kind words and warm illustrations. This reality where soft, light essays are popular signifies the present of individuals who have lost the power to move, tired by Korea's harsh society.

 

 


Written by Baek Won-keun (President, Books & Society Research Institute)

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Sung Sang-min (Culture critic, columnist)

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