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Hi, I’m Colin Marshall

… a Seoul-based essayist, broadcaster, and public speaker on cities, language, and culture.

On my new Substack newsletter Books on Cities, I write long-form essay-reviews on exactly that.

You’ll find my essays here. I write for outlets including Guardian CitiesOpen Culture, the Times Literary Supplementthe Los Angeles Review of Books (including its Korea Blog), KCET, Boom: A Journal of California (and guest-edited its issue on architecture, infrastructure, and the built environment), Bookforum, Boing Boing, Put This On, The Japan Foundation, The Millions3QuarksdailyThe Quarterly Conversation, and Maximum Fun.

I’ve previously appeared on a Seoul urbanism radio feature on TBS eFM’s Koreascape as well as hosted and produced the world-traveling podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture [RSS] [iTunes], which evolved from the public radio program The Marketplace of Ideas. 

My video essay series The City in Cinema examines cities (especially Los Angeles) as they appear on film.

My public speaking, which I’ve done in places like Portland’s Hollywood Theatre, the San Francisco Urban Film Festival, Seoul National University, Yonsei University, Chapman University, California State University Long Beach, and the Seoul Book and Culture Club, usually covers this same suite of cities-and-culture-related topics.

You can also keep up with me on Twitter and Facebook as well.

Books on Cities: Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt, The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design (2020)

When a podcast hits it big, it becomes something else: ideally a streaming television series, that most prestigious of all 21st-century cultural forms. But rare is the podcaster able to resist a book deal, and rarer still the podcaster who proves as skilled with the spoken word as the written one — or rather, whose manner translates naturally from the earbuds onto the page, podcasting being a medium driven more by personality than content. The leap is easier for those non-conversational shows, essentially textual to begin with, built around scripted or constructed narratives. If any such podcast were to produce a city book, it was going to be 99% Invisible, one of the most popular and respected podcasts of its kind. Not that there are many others of its kind: what Walter Benjamin said about great works of literature also applies to podcasts, if less so to podcasts-turned books.

99% Invisible debuted in 2010, before we knew podcasts could hit it big. Just a month into its run I wrote it up in Podthoughts, a review column I then contributed to podcast network Maximum Fun. “As unsuitable as design and architecture would seem as podcast subjects, I can’t get enough shows about ’em,” I wrote, beginning the piece in a manner I certainly wouldn’t today. “Design and architecture” was, I recall, a vogue pair of terms in the 2000s, as well as how 99% Invisible‘s early adherents described its subject matter — not inaccurately, but even in those days without doing justice to its true ambit. Under the broader mandate of exposing the “design work underlying the built environment,” its first few episodes covered a variety of topics including, as I listed them, “toothbrushes, space travel, the TransAmerica building, and, my personal favorite, city flags.”

I didn’t describe 99% Invisible as a podcast about cities then, but I suspect its creator, public radio producer Roman Mars, wouldn’t flinch at my doing so now. In the past three months alone, he and his collaborators have put out episodes on such urban phenomena as the skyways of Minneapolisunder-bridge bat infestations in Austin, Texas, the adobe buildings of Santa Fe, and the recovery of “ghost streams” beneath cities, in addition to a five-part miniseries on homelessness. A decade ago, the city per se had less cachet than “design and architecture,” a situation that now seems to have reversed. I can relate to the change 99% Invisible has undergone in that time, given that I’ve made a similar journey myself. Even the other podcasts I thereafter chose to review — Curious City on Chicago, Dear HK on Hong Hong, Monocle‘s The Urbanist — revealed where my interests lay.

Read the whole thing at Substack.

Korea Blog: A Beloved Children’s Story Turned Psychedelic Rural Reverie, Go Yeong-nam’s The Shower (1978)

Given the increasingly frequent attempts of late to overhaul the American Young Adult canon, I’m not sure how many kids read Bridge to Terabithia these days. But when I was a grade-schooler in the early 1990s, Katherine Paterson’s 1977 novel of a country boy and city girl who imagine their own fantasy kingdom apart from the adult world was still quite popular. Everyone seemed to have read it, for the very reason that everyone else seemed to have read it; not wanting to references to go over our head was one factor, though so was its appearance on school-issued summer reading lists, if not actual class syllabi. But the book does still figure, so I’ve read, into English curricula in lands from Ireland and Australia to Singapore and the Philippines — though it’s less well-known here in South Korea, at least compared to a Western novel like Demian.

One possible explanation is that this country already had its own Bridge to Terabithia, and one readable in a much shorter span of time: “The Shower” (소나기) by Hwang Sun-won. “No Korean short story is as beloved as this one, published while the Korean war was still in progress,” writes translator Brother Anthony of Taizé in a foreword to his own English rendition. “In part, the popularity comes from its great simplicity of language and content. It is a tale that school children can easily understand, and be touched by.” Its themes “include nostalgia for a lost innocence, the fragility of human life, the contrast between ancient rural ways and the difficulties of modern city life, and the simplicity of true joy.” Hwang expresses all of these through the brief encounter between a boy native to the countryside and a girl newly arrived from Seoul.

It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that everyone in Korea has read “The Shower.” Familiarity with the story runs deeper here than that with any piece of literature in the United States, Bridge to Terabithia included. But seeing as these works have been acclaimed long enough for the statute of limitations on “spoilers” to have expired, it will do no harm to either to say that, late in both stories, the girl dies. In Peterson’s novel, if memory serves, she drowns attempting to cross a stream on the way to her and the boy’s woodland hiding place; in Hwang’s story, she contracts an unspecified illness after getting caught in the titular rainstorm. The boy, in both cases, is left with a sense of responsibility for the girl’s death, a burden partially alleviated by the exhilaration of having drawn a step closer to the expanse of maturity.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Books on Cities: Mark Kingwell, Concrete Reveries (2008)

We who write about cities obviously have an interest in the city as a subject. But I suspect we value it even more as a nexus of subjects, an ostensibly concrete object of focus that in practice allows us to write about anything at all. History, architecture, cinema, technology, politics, society, fashion, food: these are just a few of the fields lying nearest to hand, but an enterprising observer can draw a convincing line of thought between the city and practically any given phenomenon, concept, or idea. This holds even truer for those who take as their subject not the city in particular, but place in general. The books of Pico Iyer, Colin Thubron, and the late Jan Morris, which I often take as examples, may in American bookstores be shelved under travel, but I consider them — more grandly but more descriptively — the work of “writers of place.”

I don’t consider Mark Kingwell a writer of place, at least not primarily, and I’m never sure where I’ll find his books in a store. This owes in part to an admirable intellectual breadth: in the past twenty years, he’s published prolifically on a range of subjects including citizenship, cocktails, baseball, trout fishing, and Glenn Gould. In his latest volume, 2019’s Wish I Were Here, he deals with the hollowing-out of our lives by “the Interface” of high technology — especially the internet and social media — that surrounds us with increasing completeness. Concrete Reveries, published just over a decade before, deals with another of the senses of loss that, though obscure, nevertheless pervades modern life: “the placelessness that is a logical outcome of the modern experiment, where time and space are first abstractly created, then systematically annihilated by the pursuit of speed and the cult of efficiency.”

The first casualty of that annihilation is “awareness of the real facticity of life, what the phenomenologist Edward Casey calls ’embodied implacement.'” Kingwell is a philosophy professor, though apart from a penchant for terms like “facticity” and citation of figures like Edward Casey, his books don’t read like philosophical treatises. Though dense with references, the material referenced is often non-philosophical: Adorno, Benjamin, Deleuze, Foucault, Habermas, and the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus make appearances, but so do Woody Allen, Don DeLillo, Death Race 2000, and Troy McClure. As that last suggests, Kingwell comes steeped in the popular culture of the twixt-Boomer-and-X North American intellectual. But he also demonstrates proper reverence for Lucky Jim, reproducing in full Kingsley Amis’ unimprovable description of the agonized morning after a binge (“His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum”).

Read the whole thing at Substack. See also my interview with Mark Kingwell on Notebook on Cities and Culture.

Korea Blog: A Star Trek Writer Pays Novelistic Tribute to the Korean Alphabet’s Creator, King Sejong the Great

Apart from the pop music, television dramas, and movies that have made so many international fans in the 21st century, no aspect of Korean culture has fascinated Westerners as much as the Korean alphabet. In fact, if Westerners know only one thing about Korea, they tend to know that its language uses an alphabet, not a set of complex logographic characters of the kind seen in written Chinese and Japanese. If they know only two things about Korea, the second is often that this alphabet was invented by one man, a Korean king of centuries ago. This piques enough of a fascination in some Westerners to get them looking up who he was, when he lived, and what else he accomplished, knowledge that can inspire feelings of admiration. But only one such Westerner has been inspired enough to write a novel: Joe Menosky, author of King Sejong the Great.

Here the book was published in both English and Korean translation last October 9th: Hangeul Day, the holiday in honor of the Korean alphabet whose name literally means “Korean writing.” This as opposed to classical Chinese writing, which until the invention of hangul in the 1440s all Koreans used — or rather, all literate Koreans used, literacy having been limited to a small upper class consisting mainly of aristocratic scholars and government officials. History remembers King Sejong the Great (whom a Korean in a language-exchange group cautioned me years ago never to refer to as simply “King Sejong” in Korean, lest I give offense) as the quintessential benevolent monarch, overseer of a host of scientific, military, economic, and cultural advances of which hangul is the best-known and most enduring. For nearly all their reading and writing today, Koreans use an only slightly reduced version of the same alphabet Sejong invented.

Whether or not the king invented hangul by himself remains a matter of debate. Some sources describe him has having led a kind of committee to its creation, while others frame it as a practically individual accomplishment. In the novel’s prologue, Menosky writes that he deliberately opted to tell the latter version of the hangul story: surely the one with greater potential dramatic intensity, but also the one that would more closely have aligned with his own feelings about Sejong, which by his own admission approach “hero worship.” This alongside his disbelief that “this story was not universally known. If a European ruler had invented an alphabet for his or her people, everybody in the world would have heard about it.” Indeed, such an equivalent is difficult even to imagine: “Leonardo da Vinci as rule of Florence? Isaac Newton as the King of England?”

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Korea Blog: The Agony and Ecstasy of Learning Korean, Expressed by Memes

Worldwide interest in the Korean language has grown to enormous proportions — enormous, at any rate, compared to twenty years ago, when it might as well have had no proportions at all. Even I felt little desire to learn Korean back then, despite my having given precious megabytes on my Diamond Rio over to several Koreanpop songs I’d downloaded through Napster. Now, culturally phenomenized in with the West as “K-pop,” this music and its performers constitute a hugely popular motivator to study the language — second only, perhaps, to the more verbally intensive if not necessarily more complex form of the Korean television drama. That both K-pop and K-drama have accrued international fan bases of such striking avidity owes something to the concurrent development of social media. And it is there, on what Konglish calls “SNS,” that Korean-learners express their collective frustration.

It always starts so easily. Unlike Chinese, written modern Korean uses not logographic characters but a phonetic alphabet, a fact I’d picked up even when I was listening uncomprehendingly to Baby V.O.X. back in high school. (Until not so long ago it mixed Chinese characters with the phonetic alphabet in the manner of Japanese, and now I’ve come around to wishing it still did, but that’s a subject for another day.) King Sejong the Great, the fifteenth-century ruler celebrated for having commissioned the creation of hangul, literally “Korean writing,” is recorded has having described it as learnable by a smart man in a day and a stupid man in a week. That claim seems to be true as far as it goes, made though it was without consideration of the far thornier difficulties for those who have yet to understand the language itself — a subject since addressed by memes.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Korea Blog: The Harrowing Films of Kim Ki-duk (1960-2020)

Kim Ki-duk died last month, and not for the first time. The coronavirus caused his death in reality, whereas his cinematic death occurred nearly a decade ago. It happened in Arirang (아리랑), a film Kim shot alone in a spartan countryside cabin to which he’d exiled himself for the previous three years. In it the filmmaker takes himself to task for his failure to maintain the productive momentum under which he’d directed internationally acclaimed pictures like Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (봄 여름 가을 겨울 그리고 봄) and 3-Iron (빈집). He attempts to explain his retreat — an actress was nearly killed on the set of 2008’s Dream (비몽), certain collaborators defected to the mainstream — but finally resorts to annihilation. Armed with a revolver crafted using his own machine tools, he drives into Seoul and apparently executes those who betrayed him before turning the homemade gun on himself.

This portrait of the artist as a self-pitying outcast does offer Kim the chance to tell a remarkable life story. Having never reached middle school in a society known for denying futures to those without prestigious tertiary education, he worked in junkyards and factories at a young age. After serving in the Marines, he studied theology for a time before redirecting his autodidactic energies to art, going so far as to spend a few years painting on the streets of Paris. There, in his 30s, he first set foot in a cinema, and would later credit screenings of Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs and Leos Carax’s Les Amants du Pont-Neuf with inspiring his dedication to film. Back in Korea he began writing a screenplay (having yet to attain full literacy, so the story goes) that would win an open contest held by the Korean Film Council in 1995.

Kim’s debut feature Crocodile (악어) came out the following year. Its scenes of destitution, prostitution, rape, murder, and suicide prefigured themes of his later work, and its eponymous character marks the first appearance of a recurring type: societally marginal, nearly mute, and subject to uncontrollable outbursts of violent rage. Despite not actually a being crocodile, Crocodile’s behavior is often indistinguishable from that of a dangerous wild animal. The same holds for the title figure in 2001’s Bad Guy (나쁜 남자), portrayed, like Crocodile, by Cho Jae-hyun, a frequent enough collaborator to be regarded as Kim’s onscreen avatar. This sexually frustrated small-time thug impulsively kisses a college girl he spots in a park, earning a righteous beating from a pack of soldiers drawn over by the ensuing commotion. In retaliation, he soon thereafter orchestrates her capture and effective sale to a brothel.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Books on Cities: Lawrence Osborne, Paris Dreambook (1990)

“You can’t have Bach, Mozart and Beethoven as your favorite composers,” Michael Tilson Thomas once declared. “They simply define what music is.” By the same token, we might say you can’t have New York, London, and Paris as your favorite cities, collectively defining as they do the standard against which we measure — and usually find wanting — all other cities. I myself have never named New York, London, or Paris among my favorites, though I’ve only spent a few weeks each in the first two. Paris I’ve never set foot in, possibly in subconscious reaction against its sheer belovedness, especially among my fellow Americans abroad. Even apart from my basic condition of Europhilia-phobia, something in the city’s popular image always grated: not for me the picturesque City of Light and its innumerable boulevards, squares, and back alleys, all arbitrarily forced to retain their mid-19th-century shape.

Yet had I encountered Lawrence Osborne’s version of the city in my youth, I’d surely have got to Paris long ago. An Englishman now resident in Bangkok, Osborne wrote Paris Dreambook early in his career, when first he was building his profile as a novelist. Though not a novel, the book also refuses to fulfill most of the expectations commonly raised by a non-fiction city book. Its subtitle, An Unconventional Guide to the Splendor and Squalor of the City, is in equal parts descriptive and misleading. In neither form nor content does the text resemble that of a guidebook, though the word “guide” may actually refer to its central character, whom the omniscient character calls only “the peasant.” Seemingly an outsider to Paris, the peasant nevertheless knows the city intimately, or at least the parts of the city that surround his apartment building at 37 rue André Antoine.

That, as readers familiar with Paris may know, is a real address. A writer on cities named Alex Marshall (no relation) confirmed it first-hand two years after the book’s publication, finding it “on a small, bumpy narrow street that twisted its way down a hill from a small plaza and church at the Place des Abbesses. Above the doorway to the otherwise plain building was a statue of a reclining nude woman.” Inside he finds the Tanzanian concierge Osborne calls “Aladdin” and depicts as occupying a single room “in the middle of which, amid the paraphernalia of many assumed lives, Arabic dictionaries of medicinal spells hi-fi equipment, boxes of rabbits’ feet, cabinets of tropical oil and herbs, cooking pots scented with clove oil, pots of lemon grass and cardamom pods, dense clothes racks and various firearms, hangs a khaki regulation tropics British army uniform decorated with a colored bands.”

Read the whole thing at Substack. See also my interview with Lawrence Osborne on The Marketplace of Ideas.

From my interview archive: Lawrence Osborne on Bangkok

I’m listening again to selections from the archive of long-form interviews I conducted on the public radio program The Marketplace of Ideas and podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture between 2007 and 2015.

In recent years, Lawrence Osborne has become famous as a novelist, expertly constructing his stories in settings as far-flung as Morocco, Cambodia, Greece, and Mexico. He wasn’t when first I interviewed him, though he was hardly unknown, having published non-fiction books on a variety of subjects including wine, tourism, Asperger syndrome, and the history of sexual pessimism. After reading a review of his Bangkok Days, on the city in which he’d spend a good deal of time off and on over past couple of decades, I requested an interview without hesitation.

What was it about the book that demanded my attention? At the time, I’d never lived in Asia. In fact I had yet to set foot there, and indeed labored daily under the shame of having never traveled no further abroad than Canada. But looking back, it must have tapped into several currents of inevitability that I had yet to acknowledge (or had resisted acknowledging). Though I maintained a variety of divergent professional aspirations, my future clearly lay with writing, and writing of an essayistic kind. For some time I’d been reading memoirs by Westerners in Japan, and occasionally interviewing their authors. And for even longer I’d been learning the Korean language, an effort I told myself was just so I could read Korean DVD boxes.

A decade later, I live in Korea and write about cities. This perspective certainly enriches a revisitation of my interview with Osborne about Bangkok Days, but in truth I’ve listened to it more than a few times over the years. (This sets it well apart from most of the hundreds of others I’ve recorded, edited, and never heard again.) Without quite being able to separate cause from effect, I can say that many of the subjects we discussed have turned into longer-term themes for me: the “new urban civilization” emerging in the 21st century, the necessity of speaking the local language, the persistence of Judeo-Christian morality in ostensibly secular societies, the danger of the West “regulating itself out of existence,” the insult to intelligence that is the U.S. publisher-applied subtitle.

Many of the observations Osborne made in our conversation have stayed with me, none more than that “our relationship to cities is very much like our relationships to a person.

It’s almost like a love affair or a friendship. If you think about the way in which you get to know a human being in all their complexity, it’s something that happens over many, many years. You don’t meet somebody in one period of time and decide that they’re a friend or a lover. You do in some ways, but what you really do is drop in over and over again, you get to know that person over a very, very long period of time. And when that happens — 10, 15, 20, 25 years — the accumulation of those visits, the accumulation of that time spent, produces in you complex feelings.

This is never far from my mind when I write (or indeed read) about cities. Nor, after half a decade living in Asia, is the fact that I still haven’t been to Bangkok. My Korean, Japanese, and Mandarin skills have each come along at their own pace — or at least they’ve come along from their near-nonexistence in 2009 — but I have yet to mount an assault on the heap of Thai language learning materials I’ve been gathering as preparation for my first trip there. Given the tricky international travel situation at the moment, of course, mine will be Seoul days for the foreseeable future.

Books on Cities: Michael Sorkin, All Over the Map (2011)

When the coronavirus pandemic arrived in the United States, Michael Sorkin became one of its earliest high-profile casualties. He died in New York City, where he’d lived since 1973 and about which he’d written since at least the early 1980s. Throughout that decade he was the architecture critic for the also-late Village Voice, a position in which he could fairly be said to have drawn on the experience of both of his master’s degrees, in architecture from MIT and English from Columbia. Not that his written work, well-known in the city for its needling tendentiousness, smacked of the academy: Paul Goldberger, New York Times architecture critic and Sorkin’s erstwhile enemy, once wrote that it was “to thoughtful criticism what the Ayatollah Khomeini is to religious tolerance.” Sorkin put that quote on the cover of his next book, an anecdote that obituaries have retold as representative of his character.

Sorkin was elsewhere remembered as a “bomb thrower,” and by the editor-in-chief of Architectural Record at that. Pieces written for that magazine constitute most of All Over the Map: Writings on Buildings and Cities, the volume I picked up in search of a belated introduction. Despite having known Sorkin’s name for years, I’d somehow never spent much time with his writing — an especially surprising oversight since it would seem to offer a model of city criticism, a form I attempted to define not long ago. City criticism is not architecture criticism, as I emphasized, and Sorkin seems to have approached the same point from a different direction, seldom writing about an individual building without also writing about the city. This could mean the actual city (usually New York) in which the building exists, “the city” in a more conceptual sense, or — least fashionably — the “good city.”

The sine qua non of the good city, in Sorkin’s view, is density, “the enabler of propinquity, the coming together of bodies in space. This density of encounter is the substrate of sociability and the material basis of democracy,” and the “frequency, character, and controllability of such encounters define the quality of urban life.” But the good city must “offer the possibility of avoidance as well as a hedge against uniformity of experience. A good city is clearly one that cannot be completely learned but must also reward the study produced by everyday participation. And a good city is one in which freedom of movement is facilitated, not impeded.” Cities are “civilization’s mnemonic, a contract in stone between past and future,” and the preeminent value of the good city “lies in its neighborliness, its respect for the other, for existing and historic patterns of life.”

Read the whole thing at Substack.

My ten favorite Open Culture posts of 2020: Ed Ruscha’s Sunset Boulevard, Roald Dahl’s writing hut, France’s 80s internet, and more

For nearly nine years now, I’ve written a post every weekday at Open Culture, usually to do with literature, film, music, art, architecture, television, radio, or language. The total comes to more than 2,300 so far, and here are ten of my favorites from the more than 250 I wrote in 2020:

See also my ten favorite Open Culture posts of 2012201320142015201620172018, and 2019.