Book Review

who we’re reading when we’re reading murakami by David Karashima

an excellent book about books

Written December 12th

I love books about books.

In fact, I might go so far as to say that books about books are my favourite type of books.

I mean, that’s probably not true because if it was true I would read a lot more books about books than I do, but I think a lot of the books that aren’t “about books” that I have loved in my life have normalised an interest in literature as a core part of life.

I like books that reference other books, that presume a weighty and continual reading of other books.

I like books that reassure me that even though I’m a very minor writer, the way in which I approach my life is not wholly unique. There are other people who devote their mind and their energies and their feelings to literature, too.

I may be a mess of a person, unstable and unsuccessful and precariously employed and under-socialised and in hatred with my body, but I am not alone in elevating literature to an unequivocal and unrivaled position as central to life, to existence. I may not have people [like me] in my life, but there are people like me in the world: they exist, they exist, we exist.

In the last couple of days, I have been surprised and excited to receive an offer to publish another book, again with a small publisher so no, I can’t quit my day job or my other job or get back into partying 24/7/52, but I can avoid the existential crisis of having to question whether or not I’m still a real poet, a real writer. I am. Just not one who makes money doing it.

Maybe the publication offer will fall apart (unlikely tbh) but even if it doesn’t maybe no one will want to read the new book (which I honestly think is spectacular, like, the best one yet), maybe the pleasure of regret won’t continue to build its broadly positive critical consensus (by “critical” I mean “friends praising it via WhatsApp and strangers and near-strangers praising it on Twitter”, there have as yet been no formal reviews boohoo), but whatever happens I don’t need to worry that I am not – because I am – a minor bald poet. Yes yes yes please.

So…

This book about books is titled Who We’re Reading When We’re Reading Murakami and is literary biography – or perhaps literature biography – by David Karashima, about the career of world famous Japanese writer, Haruki Murakami.

It’s not about Murakami per se, but rather it is about his books, his output. In this book (originally published in Japanese in 2018 and revised and translated by Karashima himself for this 2020 Soft Skull Press English language edition), there is the history of Murakami’s writing, and the things that happened to change a minor, hipster, Japanese writer into one of the biggest literary slebs on the planet.

Haruki Murakami – as anyone who’s read several of his books will know (which is most of the literary world lol) – has had multiple translators throughout his career. Some of his books have been published in multiple different English translations, with Norwegian Wood – his smash hit bestseller, though not his most critically acclaimed – being published in Japan in an English translation by Alfred Birmbaum in 1989 before being retranslated into English by Jay Rubin (an academic who was a translator on the side) and published internationally to massive global sales in 2000.

Who We’re Reading When We’re Reading Murakami explores how Murakami’s publishers chose to order his works as they were published in translation in order to build a certain reputation/aesthetic focus. The text also describes how the surprisingly strong domestic Japanese market for English translations of Japanese literature led to Murakami’s works easily finding their way into English-speaking hands. Karashima either surmises himself – or possibly quotes someone else surmising (likely Jay Rubin, who is the most cynical/entertainingly bitchy of all the “characters” in the book) – that one of the main reasons Norwegian Wood sold so well in English translation in Japan was due to the proliferation of young bilingual Japanese women with monoglot immigrant English-speaking boyfriends. 

Whatever the initial causes, Murakami’s career and launch as a writer in translation was – and remains – a massive success. Karashima discusses Murakami being embraced by the New York literary scene, and how this was made a lot easier when Murakami spent several years living and working in one of those dreadful-sounding university towns in that weird, spooky bit of the USA north east of New York. 

Overall, the book is fun and informative, full of smugness from the translators and editors who’ve been with Murakami during the peaks of his career, and full of unconvincing denials of bitterness (“I’m not bitter at all but I do think his writing isn’t good any more” – not a real quotation) from those who were jettisoned for being too unreliable or needy or smalltime.

Murakami very clearly made calculated moves to ensure his success and his reputation, and a different writer to Karashima would likely have drawn attention to this with a little more cynicism. Then again, if Karashima wasn’t both a fan and peer of the translators and academics he interviewed when researching the book, he wouldn’t have gotten the access to them to do so. Also, reading between the lines, the Murakami he sketches doesn’t necessarily come across as someone who’d be willing to agree to an interview with any sign of conflict. Which is fair enough, I suppose!

Who We’re Reading When We’re Reading Murakami is interesting and sometimes funny, but it does ooze that very American bonhomie type positivity and belief in the idea of meritocracy and how “successful people deserve success” etc. As a whiny leftie non-American, that inevitably rankles a little.

I enjoyed the book a lot, though, it reminded me of the fun to be had with Murakami’s writing, which I will visit again soon.

Order it from the publisher – it’s a great read!

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