Because Haruki Murakami’s birthday was yesterday, and because this is a library blog, this week I’ve chosen to write about The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami. While this is available as an audio book, I must recommend the Knopf print edition if you are able to read that instead. The book design is by Chip Kidd, and it’s lovely. The cover alone references the narrative in several creative ways, and the illustrations within the book are plentiful and thoughtful.
The art design struck me even more as a vehicle for the story, a vehicle almost approaching a translation of the story, because of a recent article about Murakami. If you’re interested in Murakami, you should read “The Murakami Effect” by Stephen Snyder, which appeared on Literary Hub on 01/04/2017. You may agree or disagree with the writer’s arguments (here’s a clue to its contents: the subtitle is “On the Homogenizing Dangers of Easily Translated Literature”), but reading a critique of the translation of Murakami’s work does give you an insight into how the author structures his works. Murakami does not write about complicated ideas as much as he juxtaposes unexpected, easily visualized entities and actions, which allow the reader to fill in the complicated ideas themselves, around those entities and actions. This happens to make him very easy to translate—or, he writes this way because it’s easy to translate, according to Snyder.
I have more of an appreciation for Murakami after reading the Lithub article, which may not have been the author’s intent. Snyder attempts to take some wind out of the literary sails of Murakami’s reputation, comparing him to other Japanese writers (like Minae Mizumura, whom you might want to learn more about) and finding him, in the end, pop.
But I like pop. Murakami is nuanced enough to be quality while being accessible. And letting the reader draw some conclusions is one of my favorite things that an author can do—I love this about Flannery O’Connor, for example. It is important, though, not to take Murakami’s work as any sort of object lesson about Japanese life, just as we can’t expect to learn all we need to know about the South from O’Connor. This is another point in Snyder’s article—how Americans see Murakami’s writing as synecdochical for all things Japanese, overwriting reality with a magic key they think they learned from some magical realist novels. Readers need to try to be smarter than that, and I think we can be.
The Strange Library is a quick read—for a less marketable author, this would have just been a short story in a magazine. So hipster grad students won’t be able to carry it around as long as they can carry around their copies of 1Q84… but it’s a good introduction to Murakami if you’ve been interested and yet haven’t taken the leap. And you know you want to read a book called The Strange Library. And yes, that’s all I’m going to tell you about the actual text.
Fun facts about Haruki Murakami: not related to writer Ryu Murakami (whom I recommend if you want something grittier) or artist Takashi Murakami (if you want something even more pop). And if there’s anything more precious, predictable, and yet still enjoyable, than a McSweeney’s humor piece about Haruki Murakami, I don’t know what it would be, so here that is.