Learned #23: The Big Read

In which we talk about books and places to read them.

Nine p.m. on a Monday. I'm in a wind-swept city in the middle of Hokkaido, a city throwing off the yoke of summer well before the rest of Japan will be able to; Asahikawa is clean, modern, and thoroughly, completely dead at this time of the evening. Just outside my hotel, the lights are on, the evening breezes are cool and calming, and the streets are empty.

But I'm not bothered. Instead, I'm entranced at the oddity surrounding me: an honest to god reading lounge on the fifth floor of a business hotel adjoined to the train station. It's beautiful. There's a small library - some books on business and modern life, mainly popular manga and mystery novels - a couple of public computer terminals, and a state-of-the-art coffee service. Sprinkled in amidst all this is a bevy of deep, soft, comfortable chairs, perfect for, well, reading. I may never leave.

As if in contrast to, or maybe because of, the empty streets outside, the lounge is full, but not uncomfortably so: occupying the big center sectional is a family, both older kids have their noses deep inside One Piece comics, while mom and dad are holding the baby and taking in the view. In a corner conversation pit, two women are discussing their plans for the week while drinking chamomile tea from paper cups. And then there's me, observing the goings-on from a deep, plush chair.

In this issue:

  • What We're Learning: The Big Read

  • What We're Reading:

  • Down the Rabbit Hole: The Other Big Read

Let's get to it.

Photo by Jaredd Craig on Unsplash

What We're Learning:

"Literacy Rate" is one of those phrases that gets bandied about anytime any politician starts talking about education. It's a convenient shortcut that goes: literacy is up, therefore the public education sector is doing fine! It usually seems to be followed immediately by budget cuts. Go figure.

Japan has one of the best literacy rates in the world, with the rate standing at about 99% (source). By contrast, the world average is roughly 86% (source). This is all the more impressive when you consider that the Japanese language has 3 written forms (4 if you count "roman" letters, e.g. the English alphabet), one of which consists of over 3,000 individual characters in daily use.

And yet, Japanese people read. A lot. Talk to anyone who's traveled to Japan and at least one anecdote or observation will revolve around the number of books and comics and magazines that can be found in every corner of the country. This, by itself, is not too different from any other country in the world. Wherever there is an educated citizenry, there are things to read.

Given that - the literacy rate, and the fact that books are everywhere in Japan - it's been a bit of a challenge to explain why the reading room at the hotel was so...heartening.

Reading Spaces

Reading with a view, Asahikawa, Japan.

There are no shortage of reading spaces in Japan. Famously, there are cafes, "manga-kissa," and net-cafes all over Japan. However, it feels as though these spaces are increasingly being overrun by modern life. Cafes are places to chat and visit, manga-kissa are places to watch videos and post to social media, and net-cafes are places to sleep. In other words, outside of libraries, it is increasinly unusual to find places to read, either in public or in the semi-public confines of a hotel lounge.

But the specific inclusion of a reading lounge (along with the onsen and other amenities) in an otherwise by-the-numbers business hotel, seems like a welcome step down the path towards designing spaces in which you can be alone without being alone.

There is a tendency in Japan to avoid being in semi-public spaces by oneself. In other words, the desire for privacy is such that it is preferable to rent a booth or small room in which to do your reading rather than take up a booth at a restaurant or cafe for just yourself. This is less noticeable in cities, and in the age of the smartphone, but, get outside the confines of Tokyo and it becomes a noticeable trend very quickly.*

So, to me, the idea of a reading lounge, especially one so well-appointed, and one that is being used so appreciably by its occupants, is just shy of game-changing. It leads me to hope that other hotels and cafes and semi-public spaces take the idea and run with it; I hope that the takeaway is that there is a need for places where people can be alone, together, which is so much better than being alone, alone.

*There could be, and most likely have been, entire essays devoted towards figuring out the mystery of the Japanese (and Korean) tendencies to avoid being in semi-public spaces by oneself. If not, then there's your thesis. You can thank me later.

*In Korea, meals were traditionally eaten in groups. This meant that many restaurants were not equipped or prepared to serve meals for a single person, leading to awkward situations as solo diners tried to find restaurants that could service their needs. The need to find people to eat and drink with is the impetus behind an entire genre of South Korean dramas and youtube channels. Culture is fun.

What We’re Reading:

Lafcadio Hearn's Japan: An Anthology of his Writings on the Country and it's People

by Lafcadio Hearn

Lafcadio Hearn arrived in Japan 1890 on a newspaper assignment and died there, 15 years later, having become a naturalized Japanese citizen, taken a wife, and converted to Buddhism. His writings, though romanticized, show a side of Japanese life almost completely unknown to the West at the time of publication. Even now, Hearn’s writings on Japan are often used as a jumping off point for anyone interested in really learning Japan’s recent history or historic culture.

I was reminded of all this when I found a book of essays about Hearn on the shelf in the reading room in Asahikawa. (It’s not uncommon for places in Japan to stock their shelves with discounted English hardback books. This lets them look cultured while also keeping the cost of decorations low.) Hearn did not have an easy life. Abandoned by both parents before he was ten years old, and consistently shuffled from one caregiver to another until he was finally cast adrift on his own in the streets of America. That he ascended from these very humble roots to a place of scholarship and eminence in Japan is astounding.

Reading through the essays about Hearn made me want to go back and re-read a lot of his essays about Japan, which I first read when I first arrived in Japan, almost twenty years ago. Like a lot of historical texts, Hearn’s works have been published and re-published so many times that it’s hard to get a fix on where to dive it. This collection gives you just that: a place to start.


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Down the Rabbit Hole:

The blessing and the curse of information age is that we have everything available to us. So much so that people have built a whole ecosystem of apps and strategies for saving all the things you want to read but just don’t have time for right now.

Walking hand in hand with those apps are the apps and web-services that collate and curate all the blogs, websites, and online magazines, all the better to amass the stories that you want to…save for later.

Personally, I use Instapaper to save, and Longreads and Longform to find articles that I might have missed. I’ve got a new wheel to add to the bicycle, however, which is using Diigo to publicly archive all the best things I’ve read via my system.

Unfortunately, I haven’t actually added very much to it yet, so I’m going to do a bit of a preview by listing out seven of my favorite long pieces from the past several years.

Here we go:

  1. The 99 Best Things That Happened in 2017

  2. Being Andre the Giant

  3. Selling Out the Newspaper Comic Strip

  4. The Perfect Fit: Shopping for Clothes in Tokyo

  5. Letting Go

  6. Do Elephants Have Souls?

  7. Stealing Mona Lisa

That’s it. Stay strong, stay healthy. Learn something.