Resolution for a new year

“Always after a defeat and a respite, the Shadow takes another shape and grows again.”

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

J.R.R. Tolkien
The Fellowship Of The Ring

Be Brave. Be Kind. Be True.

2019 In Books

I had a good year in books with a total of 68 read. My goals were to read more fiction in translation, something I’ve been consciously pursuing for several years, and to read at least one nonfiction work each month.

Fiction: 46 (27 in English translation)
Nonfiction: 22

Here’s my 10 + 1 list of books I most enjoyed and admired this year. I had to make it +1 because I read Moby Dick and it just seems silly to measure anything against it.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt
Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada
Homeland by Fernando Aramburu
After the Banquet by Yukio Mishima
The Wake
by Paul Kingsnorth
The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov

Almost Nothing: The 20th Century Art and Life of Jozef Crapski by Eric Karpeles
The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai by Han Jin
Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe
A Primer For Forgetting: Getting Past the Past by Lewis Hyde

The post “Books Read 2019” lists all the titles with a capsule description/comment for most.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Books by Leah Price

Most of the talk about a supposed imminent and inevitable “death of the book” reflects a sincere concern, no doubt, but is generally too confused and dramatic to be helpful. I want a definition of terms before I can evaluate the danger…just what is meant by book? Is the concern for the physical object, its tactile pleasures, history or beauty? Is the concern for the kind of content and form of expression we experience in books? Perhaps it’s worry that the change of delivery technology will diminish the benefits we associate with reading?

Leah Price points out in her recent book What We Talk About When We Talk About Books that all of these issues have caused anxiety among readers for a very long time. There was never a “Golden Age” of reading but always a mix of purposes and quality for books and other forms of printing. I love books, in any definition, as much as the next reader. While for years I only cared about the content of what I might be reading, I’ve developed a strong interest in book history and appreciation for the artistry and craft of production. There will always be people who appreciate the beauty of fine printing, so I am confident that the book as art object will continue. I don’t expect to ever own one of those small press run gems but I can enjoy the trade edition.

There is unquestionably a lot of trash/junk/drivel, pick your own label, published now. But does it actually drive out good writing or is that an illusion? The range of fiction writing in the nineteenth century was similarly wide but we only think of the great works that continue to speak to us. As a bookseller, I sighed to see children loading up with the Babysitter or Goosebumps series; in a few years will they be the adults with the latest James Patterson or Danielle Steele novel? “At least they’re reading” isn’t a comfort. Reading is a skill that needs to be developed by engaging with good writing. The readership for literary fiction has never been large; it’s hard to make a case that it’s any smaller today.

I’ll admit to sharing some of the concern for the possible implications of the new delivery technologies. Tiny screens, blue light, multiple constant visual distractions, never reading more than a few sentences at a time…what might these do to our physical brains, to our abilities to concentrate, to think? Price writes about the explosion of new kinds of print media in the nineteenth century – pocket-sized paperbacks, news digests, tabloid newspapers – to meet new needs in the urbanizing, industrializing society. People needed something convenient to read for short intervals of waiting in lines, in offices, on the train or to provide isolation from the strangers around them. Sounds a lot like how we use electronic devices, so perhaps we’ll survive them too.

Price tells an interesting story of William Morris, the great champion of design and craftsmanship, who criticized the small paperback book because it is difficult to hold for comfortable reading. He also recognized the human bias to value things based on scarcity and effort required. His books are designed to encourage what we might call “slow reading”, by which the physical qualities of the book call attention to the quality of the content. By restoring the sense of occasion that he associated with medieval manuscripts, Morris hoped to forestall the always-on reading that we equate with the smartphone but that he blamed on cheap print. Like familiarity, ubiquity breeds contempt.

Those of us who love books, who love to read for any of the many reasons there are to read, want books to continue to be valued in our world. We respect the power of good writing to focus critical thinking and to enlarge our lives. It’s the writing that matters. A book is thinking and feeling made visible. The ‘book’ has had many forms over the centuries. How will it adapt in this one? That is what we should be talking about when we talk about saving books.

If you value the union of opposites brokered (sometimes but not always) by long-form, long-term reading–emotional absorption with intellectual reflection, inwardness with empathy, the capacity to withdraw from those around us while remaining attuned to distant minds–then the book may no longer be the only place to look. If we think of printed paper not as an inert collectible but as a cue or catalyst, then fetishizing the wood pulp and thread or glue onto which attentiveness, curiosity, and imagination have sometimes piggybacked means looking in the wrong place. More useful might be exploring what new–or old but forgotten–ways of circulating and sharing and responding to words might allow those habits to flourish.

Reading Fiction

The term fiction entered the English language in the early fifteenth century with the meaning “something invented or imagined.” It derived, etymological dictionaries tell us, via the French, from the past participle of the Latin verb fingere, which originally meant “to knead or form out of clay.” Fiction is then a sort of verbal Adam molded from the primordial dust in the Author’s image and infused by the Author with the breath of life. Perhaps that is why, contrary to appearances, fictional characters at their best often seem more alive than our friends of solid flesh. Far from sticking to their stories, they change the plot at every one of our readings, bringing certain scenes to light and obscuring others, adding a startling episode that we had mysteriously forgotten or a detail that previously remained unnoticed. Heraclitus’s warning about time is true for every reader: we never step twice into the same book.

Alberto Manguel
from Fabulous Monsters: Dracula, Alice, Superman, and Other Literary Friends

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

At 163 pages, this book invites consumption in two or three bites, like eating a rice ball or other snack food from the store. It’s better, though, to nibble. The protagonist is a very unusual woman and her observations and story are highly unsettling. I read it again immediately and find it lingering in my mind, like the flavor of an exotic food upon the palate.

conven

Keiko, a social misfit from childhood, makes an unlikely heroine. She doesn’t understand why her family is so anxious to ‘cure’ her and have her behave like everyone else. It’s not hard to sympathize with them when Keiko uses a shovel to clobber a classmate on the playground. Everyone wanted him to stop beating up another child so she simply took effective action; the adult reaction baffled her. So it goes until she learns to not speak or act; she no longer stands out. She hasn’t changed internally, though. Stroking the cheek of her baby nephew, she finds it strangely soft, like stroking a blister. When her sister tries to quiet the child’s crying, Keiko looks idly at a knife on the table – it would be easy enough. It’s a chilling moment. She doesn’t act on those thoughts any more but still wonders why people don’t use the simplest means to accomplish what they say they want.

A job in one of Japan’s ubiquitous 24-hour convenience stores is a common temporary job for many, quickly left behind for a ‘real’ job or marriage. The structured routine of the store proves ideal for Keiko, however. Indeed, she feels “reborn” as a worker. She stays on for 18 years as managers (currently #8) and staff come and go. The store manual tells her how to act, other female staff provide models of clothing and speech which she can mimic, and the work gives her a sense of purpose. She thinks she’s finally pulled off being a person. We see that’s not quite the case outside the store environment when her sister pleads with her to go to counseling because ever since you started working at the convenience store you’ve gotten weirder and weirder.

The Convenience Store is both microcosm and metaphor of society. Both are forcibly normalized environments where foreign matter and exceptions are removed. Unruly customers, expired milk, and unreliable workers are expelled from the store. Young adults (especially men) who don’t pursue careers or (especially women) marriage are shunned, culled from the herd. Any oddity in a person’s life is massaged and interpreted until it can be explained and fit into a conventional social pattern.

Nothing is static or uniform, of course, despite the bemused comment of an elderly customer that this place never changes. Keiko reflects that all the units of the store – products, staff, customers – are constantly being replaced with the same but different units, like the cells of her body. The old lady was like one of eighteen years earlier, the eggs sold today are like those of yesterday but different, and she herself is a unit that will be replaced. Problems of the world intrude into this controlled environment too. A recently hired foreign worker, chronic staffing shortages, and a mentally deranged customer hint at the labor and social crises in Japan.

The author is very clever to let Keiko tell her story; a reader almost automatically feels a sympathetic interest in a narrator’s point of view. But the ambiguities and uneasiness created by such a heroine are considerable. Keiko, whose name means “happy child”, is not happy nor does she understand or want “happiness”. She sees society as a kind of hive or herd in which everyone unconsciously copies others’ behaviors – infecting each other like this is how we maintain ourselves as human is what I think. She has admirable qualities as an employee but her complete identification with the store is deeply odd. She is bereft when she leaves her job and can no longer hear its voice caress her eardrums.

The novel is a deft and deadpan satire of that universal human inclination to sort and explain everything/one into familiar patterns and categories. It’s easy to criticize Keiko’s conventional family and workplace for the excessive pressures for conformity that we associate with Japanese society. But I found myself trying to ‘understand’ her too, though in a more enlightened way of course. The English language edition subtly guides our expectations with the translation choice in the title. The title is more properly translated as Convenience Store Human or Person. (The word is also used as urban slang and in Dragonball circles as an insult meaning something like “idiot humanoid”.) “Woman” is a significant change and closes off a more open reading at the outset by emphasizing gender and the individual. My feminist instincts were easily engaged when she’s badgered to marry, or to find a more worthwhile job, or when she’s not promoted despite her exemplary performance in the store. Her return to a store that ‘needs’ her, crying out to her in its distress, feels like a victory and affirmation of personal choice. But really? What will become of her when she’s unable to meet the physical demands of the job, when she’s a worn cog and an unusable tool?

I think “Human” is a more interesting title, as well, as it encourages us to think about those qualities that make us human. Keiko in some respects seems like an AI construct of a human being; she’s a humanoid robot designed to serve this complex structured machine called a Convenience Store. How different, we should wonder, is our own life? how unreflecting our judgments? The career professional never unplugged, the retail worker whose personal life is captive to erratic shift scheduling, social media pressures to have a shiny smiley life – we can see much of contemporary life mirrored in this insightful and entertaining novel.