Just a few kilometers from the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea, Paju is a somewhat surprising location for what has become the center of publishing and book culture in Korea.
Paju Book City is a city dedicated to books—their printing, publication, and promotion. It aims to become the “book-hub of Asia.” In this book city nestled among publishing offices, online bookstore warehouses, and printing presses sits the “Forest of Wisdom,” a huge concrete building with three massive sections. Forest of Wisdom is currently home to over 200,000 books and before too long it will accommodate another 100,000. The books are mostly donations from publishing companies and some of them gave copies of every book they had ever published. Organizations and notable individuals have contributed as well. Traditionally, buildings that house such a large number of books have either been libraries or bookshops, but Forest of Wisdom is neither. The books there are not for sale, they cannot be loaned out, and they are not catalogued. Forest of Wisdom is something else entirely.
In the last few years there has been a book café craze throughout Korea, where the walls of a coffee shop are filled with bookshelves laden with interesting books. Some book cafés are operated by well-known publishing companies like Munhakdongne or Changbi Publishers, Inc., who use them as a space to display and sell their books. Others are simply decorated with books that create an atmosphere where customers can sit with their coffee, relax, and spend some time with a book that catches their eye. With a coffee shop in its central hall, on first impression Forest of Wisdom seems like it must be the biggest book café in Korea, perhaps even the world—but in fact it is more akin to a vast interactive artwork.
Explaining the rationale behind this forest of books, Kim Eounho, the chairman of Bookcity Culture Foundation, begins by talking about the beauty of books as artifacts, and how that beauty has a cumulative power, so that when books are displayed together they create the harmony of a choir, and an indescribable fragrance that transforms a space. Thus when lectures are held in these halls the content sounds more inspiring, and when musicians perform among the books the melodies are more beautiful. Over 100 events have already been held in Forest of Wisdom this year alone, including a performance by the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra as well as evening classes and programs as part of the Book City’s Open University. The Paju Book Sori Festival, a meeting point for publishers, editors, and authors from all over Asia, is also held among the books in the Forest of Wisdom, creating the perfect hub for learning and exchange.