Nothing to Envy PDF Summary

Nothing to Envy PDFOrdinary Lives in North Korea

Care to learn a bit more about the history of the most mysterious country in the world?

If so, welcome to North Korea, possibly the only developed nation “that has fallen out of the developed world.”

Barbara Demick shares her deep knowledge of the country in “Nothing to Envy.”

Who Should Read “Nothing to Envy”? And Why?

Nothing to Envy” is a rather curious book, written somewhat in the manner of Dave Eggers’ “What Is the What. Meaning: it is a nonfiction book, but it has numerous fictional elements, if not in terms of facts, certainly in terms of style.

So, even though it’s based from cover to cover on Barbara Demick’s interviews with 100 real-life North Korean defectors – and especially focuses its attention on six of them – you can read much of it as if a fact-based novel.

Which, we believe, makes the book appealing to both historians and fiction-lovers alike.

Needless to add, those interested in North Korea’s past and current ways of life and those who want to learn more about the destinies of its defectors will enjoy this book the most.

If you are one of them, be sure to check out “Without You, There Is No Us” and “Escape from Camp 14,” two books which share many similarities with Demick’s.  

About Barbara Demick

Barbara DemickBarbara Demick is an American journalist, the Beijing bureau chief of the “Los Angeles Times” ever since a decade ago.

A correspondent for “Philadelphia Inquirer” in Eastern Europe between 1993 and 1997, Demick first reached prominence as the author of a series of articles following the lives of the regular people in Sarajevo during the Bosnian War.

These formed the basis for her first book, “Logavina Street,” which was published in 1996. Though published a decade and a half later, “Nothing to Envy” is Demick’s second book.

“Nothing to Envy PDF Summary”

If you look at satellite photographs of the far east by night,” writes Barbara Demick in the first sentence of “Nothing to Envy,” you’ll see a large splotch curiously lacking in light. this area of darkness is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

In case you haven’t seen one so far – and you wonder if Demick is exaggerating a bit – please, be our guest and see if you can find North Korea on this satellite photograph.

The strangest thing: this wasn’t always the case! And it’s not like North Korea never had an electrical network. In fact, just half a century ago, it’s GDP per capita – which (never forget) doesn’t mean quality of life as well – was about the same as that of its southern neighbor, the other Korea.

So, what happened in the meantime?

How did North Korea fell so spectacularly from grace?

Well, the truth is that its rise was kind of peculiar to begin with. North Korea was nothing more but an unimportant Japanese colony for the most part of the first half of the twentieth century.

Then came the Second World War and, then, the actual creation of two separate countries on the Korean Peninsula.

The reason?

Because the Americans and the Soviets said so!

In order to appease the Soviet Union, two American officers (Charles Bonesteel and Dean Rusk) divided the Korean peninsula along the 38th parallel for basically no reason whatsoever other than the fact that this parallel neatly divided the peninsula in half.

Three years later, both Koreas were allowed independence by the two superpowers, but neither of the two governments (the communist one led by Kim Il-sung and the capitalist fronted by Syngman Rhee) thought it just to control merely one part of the peninsula.

So, incited and helped by the Soviets, North Korea tried to occupy South Korea just two years after these two became countries, which provoked a counter-reaction by the United States and 15 other nations.

Three years later, the Korean War ended achieving next to nothing: the border barely moved in either direction, the 3 million victims – futile symbols of the absurdity of one of history’s most meaningless conflicts.

After the war, Kim Il-sung divided the supposedly egalitarian communist society into three provisional categories: the selected loyal core, the indecisive few and the numerous and numerous hostiles.

Every North Korean citizen had to go through eight background checks before being assigned a certain status – or songbun – according to which he or she would later receive adequate responsibilities or even amounts of food.

Just like most of the other communist countries, Kim Il-sung introduced the cult of personality and an elaborate system of persistent ideological training which lasts to this day:

North Korea invites parody. We laugh at the excesses of the propaganda and the gullibility of the people. But consider that their indoctrination began in infancy, during the fourteen-hour days spent in factory day-care centers; that for the subsequent fifty years, every song, film, newspaper article, and billboard was designed to deify Kim Il-sung; that the country was hermetically sealed to keep out anything that might cast doubt on Kim Il-sung’s divinity. Who could possibly resist?

North Korea’s official state ideology is called Juche and is a variant of Stalin’s revision of Lenin’s original idea of a world communist revolution. It isn’t merely “socialism in one country,” but it’s basically “socialism in only one country.”

Namely, Kim Il-sung – who developed the ideology – firmly believed that the North Koreans don’t need anybody to be great, and that, as a children’s song from a 1970 film would later claim, that they have nothing to envy in the world:

It is in this idea of self-reliance that North Korean isolation was begotten. However, in time, things changed dramatically and suddenly it was the isolation that made sure that North Korea had no way of moving forward with the same government but by being self-reliant: “the strength of the regime,” notes at one place Demick, “came from its ability to isolate its own citizens completely.”

The trigger for the dramatic changes was, expectedly, the collapse of the Soviet Union. Without its help, the North Korean economy could not stay afloat.

Suddenly, North Korea had neither supplies nor electricity – in 1991, energy imports fell by 75%! – but did have large debts to both Russia and China.

To make matters worse, the last years of Kim Il-sung’s reign were marked by few bad harvests, which meant that the first year after his death, the great North Korean famine – known as the Arduous March began.

During the next four years, as many as 3 million North Koreans died of hunger and hunger-related issues, more than one-tenth of North Korea’s total population!

Kim Il-sung’s son, Kim Jong-il, had to admit that North Korea suffers from a severe food shortage and in September 1995 a UN relief team entered the country.

Five years later, Kim Jong-il had to legalize the black market which emerged during the course of the famine, but it was too little too late: most of the North Koreans had realized that they were living in a lie.

And that’s when they started defecting to (mostly) South Korea and China.

The stories of some of these defectors recounted in “Nothing to Envy” reveal that North Korea hasn’t changed one bit even under Kim Jong-un whom you may know as the “little rocket man.”

Key Lessons from “Nothing to Envy”

1.      In North Korea, You Are Defined by Your Songbun
2.      Juche Is the Official North Korean State Ideology
3.      The Majority of North Korean Defectors Are Women

In North Korea, You Are Defined by Your Songbun

Songbun – or officially chulsin-songbun – is the system North Korea uses to ascribe a social status to its citizens.

It works something like that “Nosedive” episode from “Black Mirror” only it’s much more real and deep: North Koreans go through eight background checks which include an analysis of the economic history and the behavior of their direct ancestors and relatives!

In short, if your grandparent was a dissident – you are a potential enemy of the state.

Juche Is the Official North Korean State Ideology

North Koreans are taught that they are genetically predetermined to be the only egalitarian socialist country in the world.

Believe it or not, according to the official state ideology called Juche, North Korea has nothing to envy the world!

Of course it hasn’t.

The Majority of North Korean Defectors Are Women

The easiest way to leave North Korea is if you sell yourself as a wife (read: slave) to a Chinese citizen.

75% of North Korean defectors have done exactly that!

Apparently, it’s better to be a slave in China, than a free citizen of North Korea!

Now that we believe.

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“Nothing to Envy Quotes”

Dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea. Click To Tweet

The more there was to complain about, the more important it was to ensure that nobody did. Click To Tweet

As her students were dying, she was supposed to teach them that they were blessed to be North Korean. Click To Tweet

The strength of the regime came from its ability to isolate its own citizens completely. Click To Tweet

Listening to South Korean television was like looking in the mirror for the first time in your life and realizing you were unattractive. Click To Tweet

Our Critical Review

A sort of a North Korean “Gulag Archipelago,” “Nothing to Envy” juggles brilliantly between objectively recounting the history of North Korea and movingly telling the chilling personal stories of its victims.

A real “tour de force of meticulous reporting”!    Take this summary with you and read anywhere! Download PDF:   

The Soul of America PDF Summary

The Soul of America PDFThe Battle for Our Better Angels

The Soul of America” is a battlefield.

And currently Fear is winning.

Read with us Jon Meacham’s history of the United States.

Because Hope really needs some help.

Who Should Read “The Soul of America”? And Why?

There’s no better way to understand the present than to learn all about the past.

That’s the basic premise of Jon Meacham’s book and the main reason why you should read it: it concerns you directly.

No, this is not just one more book about those interested in politics or the history of the United States.

This is a book about all those interested in what it means to be an American.

Jon MeachamAbout Jon Meacham

Jon Ellis Meacham is an American presidential biographer and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author.

A former Executive Editor at Random House and Editor-in-Chief of “Newsweek,” Meacham is also a contributing writer to “The New York Times” Book Review and a contributing editor to “Time” magazine.

He has authored several best-selling books, the most famous of which is “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House” which won him the “Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography” in 2009.

“The Soul of America PDF Summary”

The story of America has been told and retold numerous times.

The only valid reason for recounting it once again may be to find some meaning in it, and, through that, to make some sense of the present.

This – according to many thinkers and authors – came to be a dire necessity after the election of Donald Trump for President.

After all, unless we find a satisfying answer to the question “how the hell did that happen?” we may not be able to go on existing as a united country.

And “United” is part of our name!

Burdened with feelings similar to the above, Jon Meacham decided to try and find the meaning of America’s past in the ongoing battle of two primal human feelings: hope and fear.

In order to shatter the latter, and further the former.


Because “no passion” – to quote Edmund Burke – “so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.”

Or to put that in more recent pop-culture terms, once fear descends upon a neighborhood, the monsters are due on Maple Street!

On the other side of that same spectrum is hope, “the expectation of good fortune not only for ourselves but for the group to which we belong.”

Meacham further compares the two:

Fear feeds anxiety and produces anger; hope, particularly in a political sense, breeds optimism and feelings of well-being. Fear is about limits; hope is about growth. Fear casts its eyes warily, even shiftily, across the landscape; hope looks forward, toward the horizon. Fear points at others, assigning blame; hope points ahead, working for a common good. Fear pushes away; hope pulls others closer. Fear divides; hope unifies.

In a nutshell, fear communicates with our worst impulses, and hope brings out the best of us.

Unfortunately, since both are deeply rooted within the human soul, you can win elections by appealing to either.

If you want to be a good President – Harry Truman once said – it is important to appeal to America’s best instincts, not its worst.

That is why, on March 4, 1861, in his first inaugural address given just a month before the commencement of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln asked the American people to act upon “the better angels of [their] nature.”

He knew what will happen.

And he could have used it to his own benefit: “divide and conquer” is a common political principle ever since Philip II of Macedon.

Instead, he chose to speak of unification.

The Civil War had barely ended when Virginian journalist Edward Alfred Pollard published “The Lost Cause,” calling for Southerners to refuse to yield to the demands of Washington and transfer the war for white supremacy from the battlefields to the political arenas.

When Andrew Johnson withdrew the federal troops from the South, this urge turned into a nightmarish reality for the black population of the Southern States.

Ulysses S. Grant brought some order afterward, but Rutherford B. Hayes, though a staunch abolitionist, seems to have cared much more for the Southern voters than for the Southern African Americans and things were, once again, as they had been before.

Theodore Roosevelt, an admirer of Israel Zangwill’s play “The Melting Pot,” influenced by its comparison between America and an alchemist’s pot, changed that once again – and for the better!

However, the hope he instilled in the American people would soon shatter into smithereens – and all because of a book and a movie.

Namely, in 1905, Southern Baptist minister Thomas Frederick Dixon, Jr. published his novel “The Clansmen” which America’s greatest movie director, D. W. Griffith decided to adapt for the screen a decade later in “The Birth of a Nation.”

Both of these works glorified the deeds of, by then, the largely non-existent Ku Klux Klan, which reformed as a much more powerful and vicious organization in 1915.

Two years later America went into war, and when the Great Depression hit the United States, hope was all but a forgotten thought and fear reigned supreme.

Huey Long, a Trump-like populist of the 1930s, tried to use this to advance his career, and Franklin Roosevelt’s hopeful New Deal was probably the only thing which prevented him from becoming the President and leading America into a far more uncertain future.

Not that the one which followed was great:

Even though the Second World War ended with a famous victory which roused not only the American nation but also the world, the specter haunting Europe ever since 1848 will soon come to haunt the United States as well.

And the atmosphere of communist paranoia – exacerbated by the revealing of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg as Soviet spies – will be infamously utilized by one of the most brutal fearmongering politicians in the history of the country, Joseph McCarthy.

The Wisconsin State Senator tried to convince everybody that there is “all-out war between communist atheism and Christianity” and that the better side is losing.

And, until he was finally censored, his smear tactics gained him a lot of points; but they lost the country at least twice as many.

Doesn’t he remind you of anyone?

Key Lessons from “The Soul of America”

1.      History Hangs in the Balance of Two Extremes: Fear and Hope
2.      We Already Did This: There Were Trumps Before Trump
3.      The Audacity of Hope: Five Ways to Fight Fear

History Hangs in the Balance of Two Extremes: Fear and Hope

The message of Martin Luther King, Jr. — writes Jon Meacham – “that we should be judged on the content of our character, not on the color of our skin—dwells in the American soul; so does the menace of the Ku Klux Klan. History hangs precariously in the balance between such extremes. Our fate is contingent upon which element—that of hope or that of fear—emerges triumphant.”

We Already Did This: There Were Trumps Before Trump

If history hangs in the balance between hope and fear, then it’s all but obvious that it is cyclical: periods of hope bring great leaders to power (Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, the Roosevelts, Truman), but periods of fear are benefitted (and even generated to be benefitted) by fearmongers (KKK, the McCarthys, Trump).

Fear robs you of the power of your rationality – but, as Aristotle says, it doesn’t strike those who are in the midst of great prosperity.

So, be wary of people who speak of fear: they only want to get something out of it.

The Audacity of Hope: Five Ways to Fight Fear

If you want to fight fear, follow these five simple steps:

#1. Participate. Democracy is not perfect, but it’s better when you join in.
#2. Resist. Tribalism is a primal instinct. But it’s a thing of the past. So, stay away from the crowds.
#3. Reason. Facts are facts – and there is no such thing as alternative facts. Respect them.
#4. Balance. The truth is usually in the middle; so hear out both sides of the story.
#5. Read. History tends to repeat itself. In fact, that’s exactly what’s happening at the moment.

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“The Soul of America Quotes”

In our finest hours, though, the soul of the country manifests itself in an inclination to open our arms rather than to clench our fists. Click To Tweet

The story of America is... one of slow, often unsteady steps forward. If we expect the trumpets of a given era to sound unwavering notes, we will be disappointed, for the past tells us that politics is an uneven symphony. Click To Tweet

The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today. Let us move forward with strong and active faith. Click To Tweet

The war between the ideal and the real, between what’s right and what’s convenient, between the larger good and personal interest is the contest that unfolds in the soul of every American. Click To Tweet

A president sets a tone for the nation and helps tailor habits of heart and of mind. Click To Tweet

Our Critical Review

One of the foremost biographers of our times, Walter Isaacson, has described “The Soul of America” as “a brilliant, fascinating, timely, and above all profoundly important book.”

And, indeed, it is all of those – and maybe even some more.

A must-read.    Take this summary with you and read anywhere! Download PDF:   

The Gulag Archipelago PDF Summary

The Gulag Archipelago PDFThe Gulag Archipelago.”

A strange title, won’t you say?

And yet – one that shook the world to its very core when it was first published a few days after the Christmas of 1973 in Paris.

And some six weeks before its author, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, was exiled from the Soviet Union.

So, you know that it’s one of those books which actually changed the world.

Who Should Read “The Gulag Archipelago”? And Why?

The Soviet authorities did their best to prevent Solzhenitsyn from publishing “The Gulag Archipelago” – even managing to seize one of its three existing copies – but they failed in their attempt, as the book had already been microfilmed and smuggled out of the USSR.

It was published to high acclaim in Paris in the last days of 1973, but it first appeared in Russia only decade and a half later.

Irony isn’t always bitter: in 2009, the book became mandatory reading for Russian children.

In our opinion, it should be mandatory reading for every person in the world in the same way, say, “The Diary of a Young Girl” probably is.

So that it never happens again.

Aleksandr SolzhenitsynAbout Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a Russian novelist, short story writer, and historian.

An outspoken critic of communism and the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn published only one book in his home country – “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” in 1962 – but by the end of the decade, he was widely revered as one of the best writers in the world, winning the Nobel Prize of Literature in 1970.

Four years later, after publishing “The Gulag Archipelago,” Solzhenitsyn was exiled from Russia, where he returned in 1994, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

He passed away in 2008.

“The Gulag Archipelago PDF Summary”

In 1970, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize in Literature “for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature.”

Today, however, he is mostly remembered as the author of “The Gulag Archipelago,” a gargantuan non-fiction work in three volumes on which he worked for more than a decade and which resulted in his exile from the Soviet Union once it was published in Paris in 1973.

How could it not?

The book – which is extremely difficult to summarize – chronicles the legal and political history of the gulag, i.e., the Soviet forced labor camp system, and is based on his personal experience, the testimony of as many as 256 former prisoners, and all-encompassing research.

Parallel to this general historical account – which, for the first time, pointed the finger of blame for the gulags in the direction of Lenin in addition to the many pointed at Stalin – Solzhenitsyn describes the particular experience of a zek (short for “zakliuchennyi”, a Russian term for “prisoner”), depicting his typical route from the arrest and the show trial to his inhumane treatment and eventual release.

Usually, the torment started in the middle of the night when the future prisoners were at their most disoriented.

Sometimes – such as right before and after the war or during the years of 1929-30 – the government didn’t hold anything back, arresting thousands of people on a daily basis.

For example, during the Great Purge of 1936-8, modern studies estimate that as many as 1,000,000 people lost their lives on suspicion of being saboteurs and counter-revolutionaries.

Of course, many more were arrested and put in the gulags after a brief interrogation based on a presumption of guilt – and it was almost impossible to prove yourself otherwise.

Either way, you were in for a treat!

That is if you are a masochist and by “treat” you mean “a vicious torture” and a prolonged lesson in the art of discipline and punishment given by the Bluecaps.

And these Bluecapse surely knew their business: as if a modern Inquisition, they were capable of subjecting one of at least 31 different (documented) types of serious mental and physical brutalization.

Since even admitting guilt affected their behavior not one bit, it was basically for the sheer fun of it!

Now, “first love” is a phrase you are used to hearing in somewhat more positive contexts, but back in the pre-war Soviet Union, you could hear it uttered by the gulag guards as they introduced the zeks to their first cells.

The zeks really hoped that something would change once the Red Army won the Second World War, but their hope was in vain.

The only thing that changed was the number of prisoners, which suddenly included numerous émigrés and POWs.

And, in a very short time, almost all of Stalin’s numerous real or imagined enemies.

The procedure was the same for everybody: an arrest performed through the use of massive force, a show trial for the people to learn of the guilt of the prisoner, and then either a 25-year sentence or a capital punishment.

In time, the number of capital punishments – which surged during the pre-war Great Purge – is reduced, which means that the number of gulag inmates has steadily risen.

Since some of these are wicked thieves – as opposed to the more intellectually-oriented political prisoners of before – the life in the gulags for many becomes even less bearable than before.

And this leads to some fairly unexpected developments, such as the 1953 Vorkuta and the 1954 Kengir uprising, the latter of which lasted for an unprecedented period of two whole months and resulted in the creation of a mock government and a blooming cultural activity.

Things get better after the death of Stalin and Khrushchev’s secret speech denouncing his cult, but, even so, Solzhenitsyn felt a moral obligation to write this book.

Now we know that it contributed to the fall of the Soviet empire possibly more than any other.

Key Lessons from “The Gulag Archipelago”

1.      The Soviets Had Their Own Concentration Camps
2.      Ideology Gives Evil the Necessary Determination
3.      Evil Is Buried Deep Inside the Human Heart

The Soviets Had Their Own Concentration Camps

You probably know a lot about Nazi concentration camps, but not that much about the gulags operated by the Soviet Union for the four decades between 1918 and 1956.

“The Gulag Archipelago” is the defining book on the subject.

And it boils down to: most gulags were just as bad as Auschwitz.

But, unfortunately, much less known.

Ideology Gives Evil the Necessary Determination

At one famous point in the book, Solzhenitsyn explains why Macbeth and Iago were little lambs compared to Hitler and Stalin.



The former two didn’t have one; whether Nazism or communism, the latter two rooted their evil firmly within it:

Ideology – that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others’ eyes…

That was how the agents of the Inquisition fortified their wills: by invoking Christianity; the conquerors of foreign lands, by extolling the grandeur of their Motherland; the colonizers, by civilization; the Nazis, by race; and the Jacobins (early and late), by equality, brotherhood, and the happiness of future generations… Without evildoers, there would have been no Archipelago.

Evil Is Buried Deep Inside the Human Heart

However, it’s wrong to say that Hitler and Stalin were evil people and that the rest of us are good.

Things would have been a lot easier that way:

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds,” exclaims Solzhenitsyn, “and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them!

The truth is – the painful truth – that

the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains… an un-uprooted small corner of evil.

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“The Gulag Archipelago Quotes”

Thus it is that no cruelty whatsoever passes by without impact. Thus it is that we always pay dearly for chasing after what is cheap. Click To Tweet

Own only what you can always carry with you: know languages, know countries, know people. Let your memory be your travel bag. Click To Tweet

Only those who decline to scramble up the career ladder are interesting as human beings. Nothing is more boring than a man with a career. Click To Tweet

Bless you prison, bless you for being in my life. For there, lying upon the rotting prison straw, I came to realize that the object of life is not prosperity as we are made to believe, but the maturity of the human soul. Click To Tweet

Unlimited power in the hands of limited people always leads to cruelty. Click To Tweet

Our Critical Review

“The Gulag Archipelago” is a unique book: it reads as if a great Russian novel, and yet, it’s a memoiristic work of historical analysis, weaving together testimonies and personal experiences, philosophical insights, journalistic investigations, and a lot of heart and poignancy.

An “unrelenting indictment” of communism and Soviet political practice, “The Gulag Archipelago” is certainly one of the most important and most influential books of the 20th century.

Not our favorite Solzhenitsyn book – but a masterpiece, nevertheless.    Take this summary with you and read anywhere! Download PDF: