Forest of Wisdom
- onFebruary 16, 2015
- Vol.26 Winter 2014
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.
Kim Eounho says that rather than being a mere library, Forest of Wisdom is a book utopia, creating a new way of approaching and enjoying books. We go to libraries to track down specific books, looking them up in a database and hunting them down in the stacks, ignoring all the books around them. In Forest of Wisdom you cannot help but explore, browse the spines of books from shelf to shelf—reading titles, experiencing colors and textures, and taking out and opening up the ones that pull at your imagination. In this book utopia all books are equal before the reader, and on every shelf a myriad of worlds sit ready to inspire, just waiting to be opened.
In all three halls books line the walls from floor to lofty ceiling. Even on a weekday there are plenty of people around, some browsing books, some studying or working at one of the many desks while others chat with friends over a cup of tea. On weekends the place is filled with families, as children and their parents line the stairs to the second floor, reading books and sharing new stories.
The first hall is filled with books donated by different scholars. The idea is that visitors can find out more about these great minds by browsing through their book collections, thus they are kept together and each section is labeled with the name of the person who donated them along with their area of study. Looking through these personal collections, amassed over the course of the donor’s career, it is easy to see that successful scholars do not stick to just one kind of book. Among the volumes donated by a professor of English literature you can find books on philosophy, geography, music, and translation. As Kim Eounho says, children who read books are our hope for the future. This does not mean children who just “study hard” as the Korean saying goes, but for children who read widely and enthusiastically; because while school textbooks teach us that everything relating to a subject can be found in one place, the book collections of talented scholars demonstrate that those who have a wide understanding and interest in many fields are the ones who create new wisdom and advance the knowledge of humanity.
Books, things themselves that have been created, are the start of other forms of creation. They are the greatest inheritance left to humankind. In Forest of Wisdom they have been brought together to be read, to be enjoyed, and to make their presence felt in a space which creates a new way of interacting with books and is sure to inspire generations of readers, writers, and thinkers.
Kim founded Hangilsa Publishing in 1976 and Hangil Art Publishing in 1998. He is also head organizer of Paju Booksori, director of Hangil Book Museum, and chairman of Bookcity Culture Foundation.