Something I have realized about myself over the last few years is that I really like reading about people reading. Not reviews or anything like that—although those are interesting too—but just people sharing their thoughts on the act of reading itself or on the books they are reading or the books they want to read or the books that have shaped the person they are. As a lifelong book nerd, it feels like I am sharing something weirdly special with the author. And it makes me rethink my own relationship with books and reading. Because I spend all day every day reading books, writing books, and writing about books, and sometimes, I wonder about that. You know how you get into the habit of doing things just because you’ve always done them? Like you always buy the same chips at the supermarket because you liked them once and now you just don’t even consider whether or not you might like some other chips because you like these ones just fine. Or you wash your hair every day because you have always washed your hair every day, and it’s never occurred to you that there could be another way of dealing with the dead cells on your head.
That’s me and books. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have a book tucked away in my bag or my desk or somewhere immediately accessible so that I could dig into it any time I had an extra minute or two. At parent-teacher interviews in elementary school, my teachers would complain to my parents that I was always reading. Which seems like something they should have been happy about? My grade five teacher was indignant that I was reading novels in class—the horror! the pearl-clutching!—so my parents shrugged and told her to give me something she wanted me to read and I would read that instead. And that’s still true now. I will read pretty much anything. I won’t like everything, but I’ll read it. And when you have such a strongly ingrained habit/way of life, sometimes you have to wonder: do I actually like this? Or am I just so used to doing this that I never think of doing anything else?
So a book like Ju Sai Made Ni is just the thing to put an end to that line of thinking. Reading about other people reading is the ultimate reading! It’s meta reading, and if you’re enjoying this absurdly next-level action, then you probably really do just purely enjoy books and the act of reading. Over seventy different people weigh in with their own take on the act, focussing on the books they read by the time they were ten. The cover claims a variety of occupations, but the majority of these short essays are by writers. Although I was delighted to discover that prowrestling champ Hiroshi Tanahashi contributed a piece that ties his own wrestling career with the children’s book Naita Aka Oni.
This is the perfect book for snacking on. Each essay is four pages long, just the right length for a quick break, and they are surprisingly diverse in content given that everyone is writing about basically the same thing. A few contributors spend the majority of their words on an overview of the story itself, but most take the book as a jumping off point to reflect on their childhoods or their current lives or the world around them. Perhaps the most interesting pieces are when different people end up choosing the same book to write about, and you get this strange deep dive into how this one particular book changed the lives of different people. The editors of the anthology wisely group these essays together so you can read Takeru Kaido’s Fabre’s Book of Insects and then check what Mikie Ando thought of it immediately after.
The pieces are also grouped into the broader categories of picture books, Japanese stories, essays/non-fiction/manga, world stories, and novels/poems, although there is some overlap in that some essays are world stories, some novels are Japanese stories, and so on. What surprised me, though, was the sheer number of books in translation featured in these pages. There are the widely translated titles you’d expect like Sherlock Holmes and the work of Astrid Lindgren, but also books like A Dog of Flanders, which I thought was just an anime, but subsequent digging showed that it basically got published in the land of Flanders featured in the book because of its immense popularity in Japan and other parts of Asia. I can’t remember reading any books in translation before the age of ten, which maybe says sad things about the state of North American literature in translation, but could also just be a facet of my own peculiar reading habits. I tended to read: whatever my dad was reading (which led to me reading Pet Sematary at the age of six, something I don’t recommend), whatever they had at the school or municipal library (where I discovered and devoured Harriet the Spy), and whatever I could beg my parents to buy me at Kmart (the reason why I owned the entire Trixie Belden series).
The books featured really run the gamut, from a collection of poetry by a boy who committed suicide at the age of twelve to a Winnie the Pooh cookbook to the Bible itself in one particularly fascinating essay by Emeru Komatsu. And there are loads of great writers doing the telling, like Kanako Nishi, Nao-Cola Yamazaki, Akino Kondoh, and Natsu Miyashita, alongside a whole bunch of other people I’ve never heard of. It’s also a bit of a crash course in classic Japanese kids’ books, like the Momo-chan and Akane-chan series, which I had never heard of before, but which three different people wrote about here. And it made me lament the lack of books about reading in English, especially when there are whole sections in larger bookstores in Japan devoted to books about reading books. I’d love to read a collection like this featuring English speakers on the books that formed them as children. Can someone make that happen for me? I promise I will tell all my friends to buy it, too.