Korean Literature 10 Korean Books

Korean Literature 10 Korean Books – 2024 Guide

Korean literature and books set in South Korea and on its history are the result of events that occurred on the Korean peninsula; but not only. Divided chronologically into the classical and modern periods , the earliest texts were written in Gugyeol , a system of reproducing classical texts of China . In the 15th century, the Korean alphabet was developed under Sejong the Great of the Joseon dynasty . Moving from strict censorship with the Japanese colonial period , to the division of the two Koreas and arriving at the works of Korean literature today. So let’s go and see together the books to read set here, perhaps letting you be inspired for your next trip to South Korea, through the magic of literature.

Read also: History of China in Brief  2024 Guide

Top 10 Korean Books

The books to read about the history of South Korea and the novels set here deal not only with the past of this country, but also with its culture, philosophy and traditions. Furthermore, Korean literature initially developed thanks to the influence of Chinese power , also influencing its language . In fact, until the 15th century , the only language used for writing was Chinese, even imitating its first works, creating a caste of literati . The rich yangban families sent their children to China for studies, learning the basics of governing. It was King Sejong who created the Korean alphabet, considered today one of the best in the world. The earliest compositions of Korean books, such as the History of the Three Kingdoms and the Mirabilia of the Three Kingdoms , are collections of folk legends .

One of the first short stories in Korean was the Tale of Hong Kil-tong , dealing with themes of corruption under the Yi Dynasty . The tale of Ch’unhyang , however, described a forbidden love between a Korean geisha and an aristocrat. Forbidden love and equality were the most popular themes in the 18th century . The literature of this country then reached the sijo , its poetic form, being deeply influenced also by religion . From the Japanese colonial period, the division of the two Koreas came about , when books set in South Korea began to be deeply influenced by Western literature as well . So let’s discover the best books about South Korea and set here.

Korean Literature Books

Book Type Author
Human acts Novel Han Kang
The infinite sea of ​​twenty years Novel Sok-Yong Hwang
Our happy hours Anthology Gong Ji-young
Invisible nights, unknown days Tale Bae Suah
The empire of lights Novel Kim Young-ha
I will be there Novel Kyung-sook Shin
Dark in the room Novel Jung-myung Lee
Pavana for a deceased princess Novel Min-Gyu Park
The origins of evil Novel Jeong You Jeong
The tales of Ou Collection Mong-in Yu

1. Human acts

A choral novel among the best South Korean books, Atti Umani (2015) by South Korean writer Han Kang is a must read. Thanks to the voices of various protagonists, in fact, it will be possible to discover the Gwangju massacre from the perspective of Korean literature . On May 18, 1980, in Gwangju, the army forcibly suppressed a popular uprising, made up mainly of students. On May 18, during the beginning of the demonstration, students and numerous other demonstrators loudly called for an end to martial law and democracy for the country. The military kills hundreds of people, opening fire on the crowd.

In a short time, the initially peaceful demonstration became a popular uprising that lasted for days, ending with force from the police and causing many victims . Human Acts is the polyphonic story of those who died and those who remained alive during a terrible carnage never told in the West. 15-year-old Dong-ho searches for his lost friend, Eun-sook is a journalist trying to escape harsh censorship, an anonymous prisoner tries to survive and a worker is trampled to death by a policeman. A tale of destroyed, torn lives and a past that is unlikely to be erased from history books.

Read – Human Acts »

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Atti umani – Han Kang

2. The infinite sea of ​​twenty years

Bildungsroman among the best books on South Korea that we recommend in our guide. The Infinite Sea of ​​Twenty Years , by South Korean Hwang Sok-yong , 2022, stars Chun , a young student who is about to leave for Vietnam, to fight a war that is not his, thinking back to the youth he will abandon forever. Using flashbacks , the narrative intersects with various voices , that of Chun and his friends, retracing important moments of his life. From dropping out of school, to traveling with Inho around the country, his dreams as a writer and his first loves .

The arrest after the student revolt and the meeting with his first guide, the Captain , who will make him discover the world of the proletariat . Set in 1960s South Korea, this recent example of the country’s literature also chronicles a Korean historical period characterized by repression , with an extremely selective education system. The portrait of Chun’s generation is that of lost and restless kids, looking for their place. A vivid portrait through a Korean book that is at times autobiographical , capturing the feelings of adolescents with extreme sensitivity.

Read – The infinite sea of ​​twenty years »

the infinite sea of ​​twenty years
The infinite sea of ​​twenty years – Hwang Sok-yong

3. Our happy hours

A 2019 novel by South Korean writer Ji-young Gong , Our Happy Hours is a Korean book set in South Korea that is not to be missed. Mun Yujong , a university professor, attempts suicide three times . Later, she accepts an invitation from Sister Monica , her aunt, to visit an inmate on death row , hoping that meeting her will make her reevaluate her life. The condemned man is Chong Yunsu : a man with a tormented childhood, who grew up in an orphanage after his mother’s abandonment and his father’s suicide. Coming to the street, the first murders and the conviction. In his cell he draws up a notebook , through which we know his past.

The two will therefore meet once a month , initially with scepticism . Two people facing death, in a different way, sharing a few happy hours , soothing the wounds of the past and discovering a new understanding that life had not yet granted them. A delicate book set in South Korea that we recommend for the discovery of Korean literature with a story about the meaning of life and redemption , through a moving and profound story.

Read – Our happy hours »

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Le nostre ore felici – Ji-young Gong

4. Unseen nights, unknown days

Book set in South Korea by Bae Suah from 2020, Invisible Nights, Unknown Days is a novel that we recommend for discovering modern Korean literature. The protagonist is Ayami , a young woman who works in a theater for the blind in Seoul . Following the discovery of the business closure , she will be forced to start looking for a new job. Korean book set on a scorching summer day in Seoul and during a night , Ayami, after a life spent working in the only sound theater in the city, will find herself faced with a future without certainties . Walking through the streets of the city until night, she meets her now ex-boss , looking for a mutual friend who has appeared in the urban labyrinth.

This soon becomes populated by fantastic and mysterious characters . The next day, the same friend will ask him to act as a guide to a foreign crime writer, but the summer heat in Seoul leaves no escape and reality soon becomes confused with the past . A hypnotic narrative , which confuses the reader thanks to a psychedelic style , a narrative and original hallucination. The boundaries of reality join the dream , creating a different world. A writer considered a promise of Korean literature today, giving us a special book on South Korea to read in one sitting.

Read – Invisible nights, unknown days »

invisible nights unknown days
Unseen Nights, Unknown Days – Bae Suah

5. The empire of lights

Among the best books about South Korea and set here, by the South Korean writer Young-ha Kim , we find Empire of Lights (2006). The novel’s protagonist is Kim Kiyong , a man who lives with his wife and daughter in Seoul . Owner of a small company that imports foreign films, Kim leads a quiet and normal life, until the day he receives a coded message . This will reveal to him that his true identity is that of a North Korean spy , who infiltrated the country 20 years earlier. Shocked by the revelation, Kiyong will have to deal with his true identity and his past , deciding whether to stay in Seoul or return to North Korea, profoundly changing his life and that of his family.

In less than a day, his life changes forever and no one will ever seem the same as before, opening up to the world of the Secret Service . An example of South Korea books that explores the themes of memory , choices and loyalty with a style that deeply involves the reader, catapulting him into the narrative. Furthermore, thanks to this book set in South Korea we will be able to observe a fascinating portrait of South Korea.

Read – The Empire of Lights »

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The Empire of Lights

6. I’ll be there

To discover the political situation in the country in the 1980s through Korean literature , we recommend this book set in South Korea. I Will Be There (2014) by Kyung-sook Shin , tells the story of four students from Seoul, who live in of the worst political moments in the country. At writer Chong Yun ‘s house , one morning her phone rings: her high school boyfriend warns her that Professor Yoon is dying. The past flashes back into Chong Yun’s life, recalling a traumatic and exciting time. Years earlier, four students from Seoul shared a moment of trouble, bonding and discovering loves, friendships , sharing readings and demonstrations .

Professor Yoon tells them the legend of Saint Christopher , when he crosses the raging river with Christ on his shoulders, encouraging them to take risks, and their motto becomes I will be there : promising to always be there for each other during difficulties. However, life will divide them. Eight years later , with that call from old love, buried bonds will be rediscovered, but which time and distance will never be able to divide. A delicate book set in South Korea, which narrates unsolved enigmas, suffering, denied love and the student revolts of the 1980s.

Read – I will be there »

I will be there
I’ll Be There – Kyung-sook Shin

7. Darkness in the room

Jung-myung Lee , considered one of the greatest authors of South Korean literature today, manages to treat history in a unique way, giving us novels like Darkness in the Hall ; an unmissable book on South Korea. At the University of Seoul , political forces and students clash violently, with stones, batons, tear gas and Molotov cocktails. A team searches for the leader of the revolt , the brain of this rebellion that opposes the dictatorship; but no one knows his face. A historical story about an ideological conflict in a society shattered by manipulation, torture and imprisonment.

The arts become a privilege , a hotbed of intellectuals and new ideas; calling for change in the theatre. Among these protagonists we find a playwright and an actress of erotic comedies, who begin a shared journey, staging Euripides’ Electra . The antagonist, however, is a secret service agent, on the trail of the rebel leader. A story from the 80s to today , immersed in growing tension and with a thousand facets. The portrait through a book of Korea of ​​a country, its dark sides and its ability to be reborn.

Read – Darkness in the room »

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Darkness in the Hall – Jung-myung Lee

8. Pavana for a deceased princess

The 1980s setting is certainly recurrent when talking about the best books set in South Korea, such as the novel Pavana for a Deceased Princess , by Park Min-gyu . Han-seong , the protagonist of the work, is a young man from Seoul, introverted and insecure, who always feels out of place since his parents’ separation , which has marked his life after his father, a movie star, abandons him and the mother. He finds a job as a valet in a department store, where he meets a very ugly girl with whom he befriends and a colleague with whom he loves to talk about philosophy and drink beer.

The protagonist, as handsome as his father, begins to get closer to the girl, creating a delicate and profound relationship . The three characters spend a lot of time together, starting a journey of knowledge and friendship , interrupted when the friend attempts suicide and the girl leaves . Several years later, their journey together begins again in a different form, where nothing will be the same as before. One of the masterpieces of Korean literature dealing with the myths of progress during South Korea’s economic boom and frenzy of society.

Read – Pavana for a deceased princess »

Pavana for a deceased princess
Pavana for a deceased princess – Park Min-gyu

9. The origins of evil

You-jeong Jeong , a South Korean writer often compared to Stephen King , offers us her only novel to arrive in Italy, The Origins of Evil . Extremely popular in her homeland, the crime queen creates a psychological thriller with a masterfully constructed plot and characters that will leave the country’s genre and literature lovers breathless. Yu-jin lives with her adoptive brother Hae-jin and her mother , but her life is not like that of her peers. Since she was a child, after the death of her older brother and her father, she has been taking psychotropic drugs against her strong epilepsy , with terrible side effects . A therapy imposed by her hated psychiatrist aunt , in agreement with her mother, who Yu-jin despises equally.

In fact, he is convinced that the two women are playing with his life, trying in every way to make him submissive . To try to escape this dynamic, she sometimes goes off the pills for a night , running away from home and running along the pier in secret. Following one of these escapes, Yu-jin wakes up in her room completely covered in blood , even her body is covered in blood. His footprints will lead him to the kitchen, where his mother lies with her throat cut . What happened in that house? He is left with only a large memory gap and fragments of memories from the past night. A desperate race through memories, in search of the truth and retracing his life.

Read – The origins of evil »

The origins of evil
Le origini del male – You-jeong Jeong

10. The tales of Ou

Finally, to discover South Korea through the books set here, we recommend a classic of Korean literature, Tales of Ou by Yu Mongin . A mainstay for Korean books to read, the author, also called Ou , lived from 1559 to 1623, a period of profound turmoil for the country, spanning two centuries. In fact, he first experienced exile and then the death sentence . He coined the name yadam for the short story collections , founding a real literary genre on the Korean peninsula.

Composed of different linguistic registers , it included both Chinese ideograms and the spoken and cultured Korean language. In this work, we can find different topics: from the dramatic events of the struggle between political factions , the Japanese invasion, relations with China , social contrasts and history during the Choson period . Furthermore, thanks to a glossary and various footnotes , reading will be understandable and smooth even for the Western reader. Furthermore, thanks to this collection, it is possible for us to better understand Korean society of the time through the literature of this country.

Read – Ou’s Tales  »

the tales of ou
The Tales of Ou – Yu Mongin

In Journey to the places of South Korean literature and its books

If the readings we told you about in our guide on the best 10 books to read about South Korea and its history and literature have made you want to pack your bags and leave for a trip to this wonderful country, you won’t all that remains is to discover our best itineraries . Furthermore, it is also very important to know its climate , thus choosing the best period to experience a trip to South Korea.

Although it is possible to organize your trip to South Korea completely independently, we at Arché Travel always recommend relying on a specialized tour operator to organize your group trip. In this way you will be sure to enjoy a  travel experience in total  safety and reliability, on the trail of Korean literature.

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