For most of my reading life, I loved to slowly graze through bookshelves. At least once a week, I’d spend a good couple of hours just browsing, usually in a used bookstore, not discriminating between genres, prices, pub. dates, or authors’ backlists. I would stand and stare at spines, then hinge out one book after another, reading jacket copy, flyleaves and a paragraph or two plucked at random. Sometimes I’d emerge with an armful, sometimes empty-handed. The hunt was the fun.
Things have changed a lot as bookstores have been increasingly usurped by websites. Now I am forced to hopscotch on a course based on others’ opinions and algorithmic recommendations. I am a difficult read, I imagine. — I consume history, pulp fiction, thrillers, classics, science, nature guides, how-to, how-not-to. Genre is an unreliable guide of what will strike my fancy. But Amazon thinks it knows me and serves up minor variations on the themes and authors I’ve already exhausted.
I used to judge a book by its cover. But now books appear on my Kindle as tiny greyscale icons. I can barely read their titles. Looking for any sort of guidance, I read a lot more newly published books and best sellers than I ever have. And I find I abandon many books mid-course, a practice I would never have permitted when I was younger and much more loyal or maybe just forgiving. Now I know time is growing shorter and the options seemingly infinite. Lose me in the first hundred pages and I’ll find another book on the fishes in the sea.
Certain books keep appearing in my recommendation list. Years ago, I read Free Food for Millionaires. I barely remember much more about it than I liked it. But Amazon wants me to read Pachinko, also by Min Jin Lee. It’s a National Book Award finalist. I tend to be attracted to award nominees, just because they blink brighter in the endless sea of books, appearing to ensure quality in the bottomless fathoms of self-published crap and mystery novels with “Girl” in the title.
Finally, I give in and click over to read the description. A book about Christian Koreans in Japan in the 1930s? Uh, no. None of that is interesting. But Amazon insists and Pachinko shows up again and again, “Inspired by your purchases”. Inspired!
I give in again and download the sample. It begins in a boarding house for Impoverished fisherman. Again, not something I care about. But slowly I do start to care. The sample hooks me and begins to reel in. I start to care about these people. Their fastidiousness. Their morality. The strangeness of the situation. The unfamiliarity contains the familiar. The language is as crisp and clean as sun-dried bed sheets.
And even though it’s foreign and historical, it’s honest. Discussion of bodily functions, of sexuality, of wavering morals are all modern and not wrapped in pious bullshit. People speak and act like people. They are very different from me and yet the same.
The book is longish, something I tend to forget on my Kindle which holds so many books of so many lengths. But it contains so much. It follows one generation then another, interweaving stories, throwing characters into impossible situations and then fishing them out, dripping with regret or discovery, forgiveness or shame, setting them back on their pins to struggle forward. It’s epic and yet so personal.
The whole mystery of Korea, of what it is, where it comes for, how it has been shaped by history, where it fits into my world, all become clearer with each page. Not in a didactic way but through story, through the way global conflict inflicts itself on little lives, how they groan under its weight, how they struggle on. I learn but also feel how poverty inevitably creates criminality, how religion provides succor and delusion, how nuanced and brutal racism is in every society.
One of the characters in the book manipulates the pins in his Pachinko machines so customers’ balls are guided to certain outcomes. That’s how I felt reading the book, pinging between events and people, bouncing across the story, on a long and surprising journey crafted by a master of physics, story, and the human mind. I don’t mean Amazon (though that too) but Min Jin Lee, whose next books I will immediately download when it appears on my recommendation list.