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Sadly, the pleasant diversion of literature is losing its appeal

by Michael Hoffman

Radiation and rubble — that’s Japan’s reality now and for the foreseeable future; the only escape is to seize the bull called “relevance” by the horns and fling it to the devil. Gladly I accept the challenge. If I need an excuse, the bimonthly magazine Brutus provides one. Its June 1 edition, 118 pages thick, is devoted almost exclusively to, of all things, bookstores.

Bookstores! So they still exist, despite what the Internet has supposedly done to bricks and mortar and, indeed, to the book itself, another allegedly endangered species. Bookstores not only exist but proliferate, mutate, flaunt size or the lack of it, sport eccentricities or the lack of them. Some specialize — in film books, art books, books on Charles Darwin, 1960s ultra-leftwing literature, what have you, whatever the owner happens to be interested in. Others are airily undiscriminating, with stock ranging from the ancient classics to this month’s serial manga.

I don’t know how many shops Brutus profiles in its thumbnail sketches — too many to count. The number matters less than an overall impression that the trade is alive and well, or at least less moribund than is often feared. The largest store featured is Coach & Four in Sapporo. It houses a million volumes and doesn’t even look crammed. The smallest, Tokufukudo in Naha, of course does, its floor space the rough equivalent of one tatami mat.

There’s something about a bookstore, hard to put your finger on. You stroll into one with nothing particular in mind, and before you know it half the day’s gone. What have you done in all that time? Nothing — simply read a paragraph of this book, skimmed a chapter of that, made the acquaintance of a stray thought or two, and you leave at last feeling slightly disoriented; the familiar everyday world, for that final moment or two before the spell fades, seems a little transformed. Nowadays of course you can search for and buy any book you need online, but there is a peculiar state of bibliophilic reverie that only a bookstore can induce.

Japan long, long ago succumbed to the book’s enchantment. Japan spawned the world’s first novel, the 11th-century “Tale of Genji.” Readers today are astonished at how modern it seems — more so, if subtle characterization is the measure, than the earliest Western novels written some five centuries later. “The pleasantest of all diversions,” wrote the monk Kenko circa 1330 in “Tsurezuregusa” (“Grasses of Idleness”), “is to sit alone under the lamp, a book spread out before you, and to make friends with people of a distant past you have never known.”

The “Grasses” in English we owe to Donald Keene, one of the great translators and scholars of Japanese literature ancient and modern. Does the flurried, flustered present have time for the quiet pleasure Kenko muses on? Or for literary pleasure in general? Keene had doubts about that as long ago as 1983, when he told the American news magazine Time, “It used to be that every potential intellectual in Japan read Hegel or Kant. But no more. The people who seven or eight years ago were reading Romain Rolland are now reading comics.”

That complaint was to have a long history ahead of it. Sapio magazine in February bemoaned the growing legions of young adults who can barely read hiragana, let alone kanji; who can’t even cope with a newspaper, let alone serious literature. In the 1980s the accused assassins of literacy were TV, rock’n roll — and comics. Today the prime culprits are the Internet, the cellphone, texting, tweeting — and more comics.

Keene, now 88, announced in April his intention to become a Japanese citizen. In an article for Sapio in May he discusses his motives and shares some of his more general thoughts. Acquiring Japanese citizenship, he explains, is more an expression of his love for Japanese culture than the gesture of encouragement it was frequently reported to be for a Japan laid low by natural and unnatural disaster. “In a sense,” he writes — with a smile, one presumes — “I was brainwashed by Japanese culture.”

He finds it strange, he says, that so few Japanese nowadays seem interested in their own high culture. Few Japanese universities teach Japanese literature, and few Japanese grow up knowing or caring that their country over the centuries has produced a literature that ranks among the world’s finest. “Maybe I’m biased,” he writes, “but I think literature is extremely important to us as human beings. People who are satisfied with TV and daily conversation do not seem to me to be fully developed human beings.”

I wonder if Keene has seen the Brutus issue, and if it cheered him. Flipping the pages affords a bird’s eye view of hundreds of shelves stacked with millions of volumes — not many classics among them, maybe, but at least it’s the right medium. And some bookshop owners are genuine litterateurs. Kuniharu Kusumi, for instance, at his Kusumi Shobo bookshop in Sapporo began staging “fairs” for books that didn’t sell. Good luck, you think — but he sold them. Local high school kids love him — they go to him for advice on what to read. “Everything in the world,” he says, “is written in books. If bookstores disappear, who’ll teach kids all this stuff?”