“Reading at Risk,” a report published in the United States this month by the National Endowment for the Arts, deplores the decline of reading. Now, fewer than half of American adults read fiction, with the rate of decline especially sharp among those who are 18 to 24 years of age. Newsweek (7/19) notes that, oddly enough, publishers have responded to this decline by issuing even more titles, an increase of 58 percent from 1993 to 2003.

In Japan, too, book sales have been going downhill — for seven years in a row — with returns of unsold books approaching 40 percent last year. Meanwhile, publishers, desperate to somehow attract readers, are resorting to putting out more titles with smaller print runs. Presently, the number of new books in Japan exceeds 75,000 a year, or more than 200 a day.

Are the young in Japan still reading or have they, as many lament, been lured away by Internet surfing, video game playing, and DVD watching?

I decided to look at some titles recommended by magazines that target the elusive 18- to 24-year-old audience, such as Hanako, Non-No, Pia, Tokyo Walker, and Spa. I found it encouraging that these publications have book pages at all, and was surprised to find rather literary titles among the books introduced — generally coming-of-age stories by rising young authors like Nagashima Yu, Yoshida Shuichi or Suzuki Seigo.

Of course, most of the suggested titles are lighter works — mysteries, advice books, music- or movie-related books, essays and manga.

One manga selected by Spa looked like fun: “Shin Doyo Wide Satsujin Jiken: Kyoto Wara Ningyo Satsujin Jiken (New Saturday Mystery Theater — The Case of the Kyoto Straw Doll Murders)” by Tori Miki and Yuki Masami (Kadokawa Shoten).

As the title indicates, this is a parody of the two-hour mystery dramas ubiquitous on TV. Unfortunately, reading it was like my experience with rakugo — I could understand most of it except for the most important part — the punch line! Still, it’s nice to know other forms of Japanese humor exist than the slapstick served up on TV.

Searching for other titles recommended in recent issues of Pia et al also helped clear up another mystery — why people buy such best sellers as “Baka no Kabe.” The answer is because that is what is easiest to find in the bookstores, which are valiantly trying to cope with the flood of new titles. The titles I was looking for were often sold out, not in stock, or shelved in incomprehensible categories.

But I did easily find “Jokyo wa shita keredo (I Came to Tokyo and. . . )” by Takagi Naoko (Media Factory) in the new book section. This book of illustrated essays (don’t ask me how it differs from an essay manga) humorously relates Takagi’s experiences during the year she left Mie Prefecture for Tokyo at 24 with the dream of finding fame and fortune as an illustrator. She finds herself going round in circles in Shinjuku Station trying to find the Marunouchi Line, takes short-term temporary jobs in a sushi factory and a bank after her money runs out, wonders if she made the right decision in coming to Tokyo, and finally gets an exhibition — in the show window of a bank.

This is a book that any foreigner in Tokyo can identify with, although the handwritten text is a little hard to read. Takagi has also written similar books on life as a short person (“150-cm life”) and living alone in the city (“Hitorigurashi mo 5 nenme”).

Since it was selected by several magazines, I also decided to read “Bambi no Hakusei (Stuffed Bambi)” by Suzuki Seigo (Kodansha). This turned out to be a story about several months in the life of a perpetual adolescent, a type of person seemingly on the rise in Japan.

“Boku” is an unnamed 27-year-old who drifts through life working as a sign painter. He lives with his older sister Haruko, an intense but closed-off and uncommunicative professional into whose apartment he temporarily moved eight years ago, when their selfish mother ran off to live on an island with her boyfriend.

Although he just wants things to stay as they are, without hard choices or being tied down to any life plan, his longtime girlfriend, Maki, also 27, decides to move out of her parents’ home so they can live together. Then Haruko buys a condo and moves out to live alone.

What should he do? Of course, in true slacker fashion, he ends up shrugging his shoulders and effectively saying, “Whatever.” Despite having considerable insight into the causes behind his unwillingness to commit, even as he wants to connect, he is not yet ready to change and grab life with both hands.

Bambi, by the way, is a stuffed fawn Haruko leaves behind when she moves that comes to embody all of Boku’s inchoate feelings of abandonment and anxiety about the future.

Suzuki’s book shows that quality fiction that is speaking to the concerns of twentysomethings is being published, but one wonders if its natural audience has the time or inclination to search for such books. It remains to be seen whether the Internet is the enemy of the book or a new form of reading and a source of new authors. Perhaps we can take hope in the fact that Takagi first came to the attention of editors through her Net diary, and that the printed book still has a role in preserving her work and introducing it to others.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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