I found a section in a bookstore a while ago that was books about reading, and it seemed to me to be the most meta thing ever. Reading a book about reading. But of course, it only makes sense. Reading is a fascinating thing we’ve taught our brains to do, so naturally, there would be people out there in this world ruminating on this little mental trick. And there are so many angles to approach reading from; the topic’s inexhaustible, really. By the time I walked away from that books about reading section, I was wondering why I’d never seen such a section before, not to mention why I’d never read anything about reading. With a brain that battles books on the regular, you’d think I’d be devouring books about reading, if only to up my game.
But the sad fact is a lot of those books about reading are academic in nature, and my eyeballs tend to roll right out of my head when I’m confronted with that kind of empty verbosity. (Until people stop using bloated synonyms like “utilize”, I refuse to acknowledge the readability of the denser academic texts.) (And yes, I know #NotAllAcademicTexts.) Where are the user-friendly books on books? Where are the manga?? It turns out they are hiding on a shelf in the bookstore. Because the Japanese comics industry is nothing if not thorough. There’s a manga about everything! And perusing the shelves one day, I noticed a sample dangling from the shelf with the intriguing title Kaban Toshokan, or as the English subtitle would have it, “Stories of the Library in a Bag.”
Now you might be saying to yourself, “Well, it’s a book about libraries then, not books,” and you would be correct to assume that from the title. But the subtitle really should be “Stories about the books borrowed from the library in a bag.” Although the library bag and its librarian are the main characters, almost all of the short chapters depict the library patrons and how they interact with the books they borrow. The concept is both intriguing and pretty bizarro. There is a bag and it is a library. It is the “truth of the universe”, and it somehow contains every book in every language on every subject. Would-be borrowers descend into the bag with ropes tied around their waists, the other ends of which are held firmly in the hands of the burly librarian. To enter untethered is to be lost in the library forever. The bag is sentient, however, and chats up the patrons to help them find the book they need in that moment. It also quotes Goethe constantly, which soon becomes very irritating, a quirk that detracts from an otherwise highly readable book.
The chapters stand alone for the most part, with little reference to events that happen before or after, although they do build on each other slowly, and there’s an overarching narrative of a woman in search of the library bag, desperate to borrow a particular book. But the library wanders from place to place in the hands of the librarian, and she always just misses them. People are mostly glad to see the library, but occasionally, borrowers become too attached to the books they’ve borrowed, like the woman who lost her husband and now all she has to remember him by is the library’s copy of Waverly. And every so often someone tries to steal the library, like the gang of thugs who are expecting it to be a normal bag with a wallet and things for them to sell in it. But the library bores most of them to sleep with a dense text on Goethe. All except the one thug who can’t sleep anymore. But maybe if he had that book, the one he always used to read before going to bed as a child…
This is the real charm of Kaban Toshokan, the way it connects books with places and times and people. It digs into the hearts of readers and goes beyond anything like book criticism to simply look at how we connect with books, how they live in our hearts in a way that’s beyond reason. One chapter in particular is so perfect at depicting this. Abandoned by her family, a woman jumps into the sea with her young son. But the son survives and is found by the librarian. Once the boy is physically healed from his near-death experience, he borrows 20 000 Leagues Under the Sea from the library. The term for borrowing is one year, and in another bit of magic, the librarian always finds the borrower, wherever they might be, once that term is up. So he comes back for the Verne the following year, and the boy asks to borrow it again. And again the next year. And the year after that. Every year, the librarian comes, and he and the boy develop a relationship as the boy grows into a man with this precious volume. It’s a beautiful expression of how some books become touchstones in our lives that we return to periodically to recapture that bit of ourselves or remind ourselves of something important.
Yoshizaki also includes pages with blurbs about the books that feature in the chapters, so that you can run out and read them, too. Given that the library is in what appears to be Europe for a good chunk of time, most of the books that show up in these pages are English (and weirdly, American, no doubt reflecting the bias toward American books in translation in the industry here), so there were no great discoveries for this native English speaker. But still, a book about books leading readers to new books. It might be the most meta of books.