April 20, 2024

How Do You Live? by Genzaburo Yoshino, translated from the Japanese by Bruno Navasky (#1937 Club)


I am coming in hot, with only a day to spare, for the 1937 Club this week. Having finished all that I can of the International Booker Prize 2024 longlist, it was a lovely thing to open How Do You Live? Published in 1937, it is a Japanese classic written for young readers. 

“Academy-Award winning animator Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, Howl’s Moving Castle) has called it his favorite childhood book and announced plans to make it the basis of his expected final film.” -inside cover flap

Like all the best books written for children, this book is perhaps more appreciated by adults. I remember opening A Wrinkle in Time when I was 12, and again when I was 23, and how much more meaningful it was to me the second time around. This is not to say, of course, that these books don’t strike us profoundly in our formative years.

Neil Gaiman writes, in his forward, that if had been given it as a small boy, he “would have found it puzzling or even dull: a book-length essay about how we live our lives, interrupted by the story of a pre-war schoolboy in Japan dealing with friendship and bullying, or a story about growing up, bravery, cowardice, social class and finding out who you are…In How Do You Live?, Copper, our hero, and his uncle are our guides in science, in ethics, in thinking. And in the way they take us, through a school story set in Japan in 1937, to the heart of the questions we need to ask ourselves about the way we live our lives.”

Those are very interesting topics to me:  being bullied, being brave, being a friend. They were as a child, they are now, for who isn’t looking for the best ways to live their lives?

Copper, nicknamed after Copernicus by his uncle, searches to find his way with his uncle’s help. Copper’s father has died, and he lives alone with his mother, but his uncle is a marvelous role model and friend. Through discussions and letters, he carefully considers how it is that we live. How, indeed, Copper can make wise choices.

Consider these quotes:

Even among adults, the human tendency is to think about things and form judgments with ourselves at the center remains deep-rooted.

No, when you are an adult, you will understand this. In the world at large, people who are able to free themselves from this self-centered way of thinking are truly uncommon…Most people slip into a self-interested way of thinking, become unable to understand the facts of the matter, and end up seeing only that which betters their own circumstances. (p. 21)

and this:

So when I see that you hate that which is low-minded, crude and prejudiced, and that you show respect for an honest, brave spirit - how shall I put it? That comes as a tremendous relief. (p. 45)

Well, I think you see my point. In between stories of Copper’s life, at school and with his friends, we read these beautiful lessons which cause me to think about my own life. How, then, am I living it? 


 Thanks to Kaggsy and Simon, who offer this week’s 1937 Club. 


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