Christmas Book Shopping, the ‘Murakami Effect’ & Why it is OK to Have More Books than You Can Hope to Read

Late last year I was trying to curtail my usual, habitual, excessive, book shopping in the knowledge that I would probably do a lot at the end of the year. And I certainly did.

First up, my reward to myself for passing another tough exam was to buy the DK coffee table book of Animals. I did hesitate. I mean, I already have their book on Wildlife and Natural History, did I really need one on animals? Maybe, maybe not.

One argument that helped push me was a reminder that some of the things that I believed helped my education as a child are not like they used to be. I benefited greatly from having an encyclopaedia and lots of old National Geographic’s around the house. But an encyclopaedia seems a bit redundant when you feel you have to check for updated info online. And National Geographic is certainly not what it used to be since it was bought by Rupert Murdoch. The people who made it what it was were quickly removed and rather than being a source of stories on science, the natural world, history and culture; there is now an overt emphasis on Christian themes. It would not surprise me if the magazine that I followed the Voyager Program through turns to creationism and climate change denial.

Oh well. Books can still be handier for browsing than new tech (despite a friend of mine who thinks I would benefit from having books on my phone, blech!). This Animals book is excellent; highly visual, informative and very browsable. More of a reference book than one to read from cover to cover, I hope my daughter will enjoy perusing it when she is old enough.

I ended 2016 by buying a complete set of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. I thought I’d make it an annual thing – squirrelling away during the year to buy a whole series at year end. This year I went for Maurice Druon’s seven novel series, The Accursed Kings. Bestsellers when first published, they have gained new attention because of their influence on George RR Martin and his assertion that they are ‘the original Game of Thrones’.

I was surprised when they arrived by how short the novels are. They look like very quick reads.

That was all I was planning on buying, but two other books caught my eye.

The first was another book published by DK – an illustrated guide to the Mahabharata. I think this book is amazing. I couldn’t believe it when I found it, I had never come across it before. I don’t currently have a copy of the Mahabharata. I think, like the Shahnameh (which I read last year) and the Arabian Nights (which I will read this year), the choice you have to make with the Mahabharata is whether to read it in its entirety or in some condensed one-volume version. If you read these entire epics, you may have to devote a significant portion of your reading life to them.

And that’s before you consider how to interpret and understand these epics. The Mahabharata may be the greatest of them all given its antiquity, its length, its influence and its durability. This book explains the epic, chapter by chapter, filled with images from centuries of art and from film and theatre adaptations, from India to Indonesia. It will make an amazing companion when I read the epic itself, though probably in a one-volume form.

The other unplanned purchase I made was The Angry Chef by Anthony Warner which takes aim at the myths, misinformation, pseudoscience and just plain rubbish that persists in the health food industry. It will sit nicely alongside Simon Singh’s Trick or Treatment on my shelves.

A couple of articles I read online caught my interest recently. One was by Stephen Snyder at Lit Hub (see here) on the ‘Murakami Effect’ – a tendency to over-appreciate literature that transcends language and cultural boundaries while neglecting those that do not. It is an interesting point. It does not diminish Murakami’s skill or achievements to point out that he writes in a deliberately universal way. And while it may be poor of us to neglect literature that is confined by cultural barriers, it is perfectly understandable why we do since we can’t fully understand and appreciate multiple languages and cultures. One of the reasons I have not set myself the goal of reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, is that, as I understand, too much is lost in translation.

It is a good article with much food for thought. I especially enjoyed the comparison between Murakami – Japanese raised but obsessed with American literature, who writes in a deliberately global style – and Minae Mizumura – also Japanese but has spent much of her young adulthood in America, equally obsessed with Japanese literature and writes in a deliberately classic Japanese style which defies universality and may in fact be untranslatable.

I suppose in some ways, unlike other literary prizes, we look to the Nobel to award writers for the quality of their work even if no one can read them with understanding outside their native language and culture. But apart from that, there may not be much international recognition for such writers who will have to be content with national recognition. For English readers, we may have to be content with apparent dominance of the Murakami’s of this world while the Mizumura’s remain inaccessible to us.

Finally, I also enjoyed an article by Jessica Stillman at Inc.com which eased some of my guilt for owning too many books. Stillman argues that it is ok to have more books than you can ever hope to read and feel a little bad about it because it is important to be aware of how much you don’t yet know. You can read it here.

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