Back at the end of July last year, I decided to get an overview of Japanese literature by reading the most beloved Japanese books by the most beloved authors. My choice of Japanese literature, as opposed to, say Swedish or North Dakotan, was fairly random, beyond the fact that the number of Swedish novels translated into English can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and I’d rather visit Japan than North Dakota. I tend to accomplish more if I have a set goal and a list of tasks that can be crossed off, so making a ‘reading project’ came naturally.
Since I knew nothing about Japanese literature, I need somewhere to start. I began with the user-chosen list of Best Japanese Books on Goodreads and expanded with some judicious searching and sorting on Amazon. Perfect, no, of course not, but since the point was to read things that were widely available and widely liked, more than adequate for me.
And, well, after eight months I can say I’m done.
Do I have a better idea of Japanese literature? …Definitely, though of course 28 books out of a literary tradition a thousand years old is but a laughable drop in the bucket.
Did I learn anything about the Japanese culture? …Hrm, well, I think I may already have heard tell, before I began, something about ‘alienation’ and ‘a taste for the surreal.’
Have I found some new authors I love? …Some.
Have I grown out of the experience? …Probably not, except to prove to myself that the list thing really works, and also gets really old after a while.
To be honest, what I learned was more a confirmation of something I already knew: I don’t like literature written after about, oh, 1949. Science fiction, yes. The occasional mystery or fantasy novel. Many kid’s books. But straight-up ‘lit’ (define it how you will) seemed to go in a direction mid-century that doesn’t jibe with my tastes. Call it a pervasive salting of nihilism, or less semi-colons, or whatever. It’s just me. (It makes a nice excuse, though, when working at a bookstore: “Have you read X? You have to read X!” “Oh, no, I don’t read anything published after 1950.”)
Not that I like everything published before then; certainly not, as this list will demonstrate. Nor do I hate everything after that point. But it does seem to demonstrate something that of the first six ‘literature’ books on this list, only one (Silence, 1966) was written after 1947.
One classic (some might say the classic) got missed out on strictly because of size: no way in the world I am going to plow through the 1,216-page Tale of Genji, ‘first-ever novel’ or no. It may be a seminal work, but at a certain point (around the 900-page mark, in fact) I say: life is too damned short.
And on the topic of tomes, my copy of Soseki’s famous I Am a Cat, as delightful as the first few pages were, quickly got booted after I read his (much shorter) Kokoro, which resoundingly ruined any further chances that gentleman’s writing might have with me.
The observant will notice a glaring omission in my reviews of any of Haruki Murakami’s books, which is nuts, since he is without a doubt the most famous Japanese writer, period. The reason for this is that a) I was trying to read only one book from each author, to conserve time (an idea that broke down somewhat when people gave me books) and b) I did read Murakami: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, in fact, many years ago in the summer in a patio chair that I moved around my parents’ backyard in chase of that single spot of sunlight that made me sweat and get mildly dizzy and squint at the pages of the heavy glossy librarybound hardback, which is just the most perfect way I can imagine to read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Don’t worry, I loved it (in spite of the fact that it was written in the 90’s).
So here’s the final breakdown. Books without reviews, like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, are things I read before I started the blog.
Books that will never leave my shelf:
Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata
The Sailor who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima
The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon
One Hundred Poems from the Japanese translated by Kenneth Rexroth
One Hundred More Poems from the Japanese translated by Kenneth Rexroth
Kappa by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (’cause it was a gift)
Books here for now, though they might move on someday:
Books I debated about keeping (or getting), and then didn’t:
Books I was happy to give to friends:
Books I didn’t think twice about getting rid of:
Ghost in the Shell Volume I by Masamune Shirow
Coin Locker Babies by Ryu Murakami
69 by Ryu Murakami
Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
Love Poems from the Japanese translated by Kenneth Rexroth
The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids by Kenzaburo Oe
Snakes and Earrings by Hitomi Kanehara
Books that were lucky they didn’t hit the wall on the way out:
PHEW. It’s all done. Now – I’m off to finish my steampunk reading project!
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