The Condition of Books and Reading
As one navigates the labyrinth of Japanese literature, one can’t miss out on a surprisingly unexpected element: cats. Cats are prevalent in works of Japanese literature. One of the earliest and most popular titles that incorporated this seemingly unusual element is Natsume Sōseki’s I Am a Cat (吾輩は猫である, Wagahai wa Neko de Aru.) Originally published in 1906, the satirical novel remains an integral part of contemporary Japanese literature. Cats are also a leitmotif in the works of Haruki Murakami, a self-confessed admirer of Sōseki’s prose. For instance, Kafka on the Shore (海辺のカフカ, Umibe no Kafuka, 2002) featured a character, Nakata, who can speak to cats while the titular Kafka can’t resist petting cats he passes by. Meanwhile, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (ねじまき鳥クロニクル Nejimaki-dori kuronikuru, 1994-1995) revolved around the main character’s missing cat. Toru Okada loved cats more than he loved any of the women he encountered.
Another revered name in the ambit of Japanese literature, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, also made his contribution to this growing “sub-genre” by publishing the novella A Cat, a Man, and Two Women (猫と庄造と二人の女, Neko to Shōzō to futari no onna) in 1936. Beyond Murakami and his literary idol, the feline presence in the works of contemporary Japanese literature exponentially increased in recent years. Nowhere has it become more prevalent than in the past decade. Among the titles that were recently made available to anglophone readers are Hiro Arikawa’s The Travelling Cat Chronicles, Takahashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat, and Genki Kawamura’s If Cats Disappeared from the World. Each book has left tickled the imagination of many a reader across the world.
Not to be outdone, Sōsuke Natsukawa (夏川 草介) added a new tome to this growing collection of Japanese literature revolving around cats. Natsukawa hailed from Japan’s Kansai region, a region with a long and rich tradition of producing top-caliber writers such as Murakami (Kyoto) and Tanizaki. Currently residing in Nagaon, he is a doctor by profession and made his literary debut in 2009 with 神様のカルテ (Kamisama no Karute, God’s Medical Records). His sophomore novel 本を守ろうとする猫の話 (Hon o mamorō to suru neko no hanashi) hit the bookstands in 2017 and was made available for English readers in late 2021as The Cat Who Saved Books; the novel was translated by Louise Heal Kawai.
“It’s not true that the more you read, the more you see of the world. No matter how much knowledge you cram into your head, unless you think with your own mind, walk with your own feet, the knowledge you acquire will never be anything more empty and borrowed.”~ Sōsuke Natsukawa, The Cat Who Saved Books
At the heart of the novel was Rintaro Natsuki. Natsuki was a high school student who was described as “on the short side, pale with rather thick glasses, and rarely spoke.” On the surface, there was nothing spectacular about Rintaro. He didn’t excel in his studies. He also did not excel in athletics: “He was a completely average boy.” In the opening pages of the novel, it was disclosed that Rintaro was the product of a broken home. He was still a baby when his parents separated. Tragedy struck when his mother passed away when he was about to start primary school. Rintaro was then sent to his grandfather. It was his grandfather who raised him: “It had been just the two of them ever since.”
Just when things seemed to look up for the young protagonist, life handed him yet another twist of fate that unraveled young Rintaro’s life. When the novel commenced, we learn that his grandfather has passed away. It was so unexpected that Rintaro was unsure how to respond. He hid behind a veneer of calmness that belied the storm that was brewing within him: “The very idea of death is unfamiliar to him; he can’t make the connection between it and his grandfather, a serene man who seemed to exist in a different realm. He never thought death would come for Grandpa, who relished his simple, almost monotonous lifestyle.” Orphaned at a young age Rintaro no longer has anyone to turn to, except perhaps for an aunt whose existence he only heard of after his grandfather’s funeral.
But lo and behold, everything was not lost as Rintaro’s grandfather left him the secondhand bookstore he owned. Rintaro had very fond memories of the bookstore that has served as his second home. It was also seminal in transforming him into a bookworm. As the story moved forward, it was revealed that Rintaro was a hikikomori, a Japanese term used to describe individuals who have an extreme aversion to social interactions. Rintaro was the epitome of a hikikomori – it was repeatedly mentioned in the novel as well – but he found comfort in the company of books. Beyond the bookstore and his grandfather, he had very few traces of social interactions, if at all. He had no friends from his age group but his friendlessness never bothered him. To Rintaro, the books at Natsuki bookstore were enough. It did not help that the reticent main protagonist stopped attending school following the demise of his grandfather.
Managing a bookstore unsupervised at such a young age, however, can be too much. This left Rintaro with no recourse but to dispose of all the remaining books in the bookstore and close the bookstore down for good. He will then move in with his aunt. It was at this juncture that the titular cat made his appearance. In marches Tiger the Tabby, a talkative feline with piercing green eyes. Rintaro was naturally caught off guard by the sudden appearance of the loquacious feline: “You’re a cat!” Talking cats are nothing unfamiliar in the ambit of Japanese literature, and literature in general, where the readers’ imaginations are pushed beyond their known limits. The function of storytelling and writing, after all, is to tickle the readers’ imagination while, at the same time, stirring their critical thinking.
“Reading isn’t only for pleasure or entertainment. Sometimes you need to examine the same lines deeply, read the same sentences over again. Sometimes you sit there, head in hands, only progressing at a paintakingly slow pace. And the result of all this hard work and careful study is that suddenly you’re there and your field of vision expands. It’s like finding a great view at the end of a long climbing trail.”~ Sōsuke Natsukawa, The Cat Who Saved Books
For sure, Tiger was no ordinary cat that randomly barged into Rintaro’s quotidian existence. Along with Tiger was a mission to save books from their imprisonment. At least that’s how he referred to the current state of books. In order to do that, he must employ Rintaro’s help. What ensued was a quick-paced adventure that took the readers across what Tiger referred to as labyrinths. Each labyrinth presented its own challenge that the unlikely duo must overcome. It was Tiger who led Rintaro through these labyrinths, whisking him from the bookstore to places that Rintaro did not expect to find himself in. However, it was Rintaro who, primarily relying on the wisdom he gained from his grandfather, was the main mouthpiece.
The novel, however, is no arbitrary adventure story. As Tiger and Rintaro hop from one place to another, what slowly developed was a thinly veiled satire. With scathing but realistic commentaries, the novel expounded on the current state of reading and books. Through the unusual characters that the duo encountered, we read about growing concerns about books. A recurring question revolved around the importance of reading and books in our lives. Through the characters’ adventures, the story endeavored to provide an answer on whether books remain relevant in our quotidian existence. Sure, we acknowledge the importance of books but do they still occupy the same place they once did?
Nowhere in the story was this more prevalent than in the third labyrinth as it placed the proverbial microscope on one of the modern reader’s primary concerns: “They say that people don’t read anymore. But that’s just not true. They’re too busy. There really is a limit to the time they can spend on reading. But there are so many books they want to read.” This is certainly something that many of us can relate to, hence, the ubiquitous line “too many good books but too little time.” Still, we try to allot as much time as we can to make a dent in our own reading lists. Meanwhile, the essence of reading has slowly lost its meaning because it has turned into a competition of who is able to read the most; speedreading. Rather than vessels of experience and knowledge, books have lost their meaning and have transformed into mere symbols of consumption. On a more superficial note, some of us collect books, not to read but to have something to boast of.
The story took it up a notch further by also examining seminal subjects that influence our reading experience. Natsukawa did not mince a word when he turned the novel into an indictment on the current state of the publishing industry and, by extension, academia. In the second labyrinth, Rintaro and Tiger encountered another caricature who deconstructed books to extract only the salient points and convey these points to the readers. This labyrinth also highlighted the technological advancements that can greatly impact the reading experience. Meanwhile, in the third labyrinth, we meet the executive of a publishing house that endlessly releases books without any regard for their contents: “Books are expendable goods. It’s my job to make sure they are consumed in the most efficient way possible.”
“In our stifling daily lives, we’re all so occupied with ourselves that we stop thinking about others. When a person loses their own heart, they can’t feel another’s pain. They lie, they hurt others, use weaker people as stepping-stones to get ahead – they stop feeling anything. The world has become full of these kinds of people.”~ Sōsuke Natsukawa, The Cat Who Saved Books
In all of these, Rintaro had solutions and words of wisdom that were inculcated into him by his grandfather. Some of his solutions were profound while some were farfetched. Nevertheless, the concerns underscored in the novel are real. Suffice it to say that these concerns also adversely impact our own critical thinking. Over the course of his discourses, Rintaro made references to several prominent writers, in an effort to underscore deep thinking. Among the prominent writers and thinkers named by Rintaro were William Shakespeare, Alexandre Dumas, William Faulkner, Voltaire, and Antone de Saint-Exupéry. These are prominent and widely-recognized names. The lack of Japanese and female writers, however, was glaring and lamentable. Among the many prominent names in Japanese literature, Osamu Dazai was the only writer mentioned while Jane Austen was the only female writer referenced in the book.
For all its blunders, one cannot fault the intentions of Sōsuke Natsukawa. In The Cat Who Saved Books, he gifted the world with the story of a young boy who, at the start, had very little understanding about himself and the world at large. As the story moved forward, and as he tackled the growing concerns of the modern reader, Rintaro was also learning more about himself. Over the course of the story, the hikikomori also started to learn the importance of loosening up and letting others enter his realms. Although they were thrown into a random world, there was some tenderness that developed between Tiger and Rintaro.
The book further draws power from its incisive examination of the waning leisures of reading. With Tiktok and other social media increasingly becoming more prevalent, we are slowly losing the once pleasant pleasure that books offer. This is exacerbated by fast-paced living that does not allow us to pause and take a breather. But lo and behold! All hope is not lost as this heartwarming and entertaining novel also offered hope for the future of books.
“Books are filled with human thoughts and feelings. People suffering, people who are sad or happy, laughing with joy. By reading their words and their stories, by experiencing them together, we learn about the hearts and minds of other people besides ourselves. Thanks to books, it’s possible to learn not only about the people around us everyday but people living in totally different worlds. “~ Sōsuke Natsukawa, The Cat Who Saved Books
Characters (30%) – 22%
Plot (30%) – 19%
Writing (25%) – 18%
Overall Impact (15%) – 13%
During the pandemic, I learned that I am more of a cat person rather than a dog person. But anyway, I was fascinated when I started to notice how cats are prevalent in Japanese literature. Natsume Sōseki’s I Am a Cat is a book I kept on encountering whenever I drop by the bookstore and now, I can’t wait to read the book. And then I came across Hiro Arikawa’s The Travelling Cat Chronicles. It was actually very recently when I made this observation as I keep on encountering works of Japanese literature with cats on the title. Genki Kawamura’s If Cats Disappeared from the World was one and Sōsuke Natsukawa’s The Cat Who Save Books was another. As I look back, I remembered how cats were ubiquitous in the works of Haruki Murakami. I am astounded by this realization that I want to do some in-depth research. Prior to this year, The Travelling Cat Chronicles was the only feline-titled book I read. This makes The Cat Who Saved Books the second. Overall, I enjoyed the whim of the story. It was also accessible and easy to follow. It had its faults, especially in some of the misguided solutions for the concerns highlighted in the book. Nevertheless, Natsukawa managed to reel me in. It is a book that is suitable for all readers of all ages.
Author: Sōsuke Natsukawa
Translators (from Japanese): Louise Heal Kawai
Publishing Date: 2021 (February 5, 2017)
Number of Pages: 192
Awkward high school student Rintaro Natsuki is about to close the secondhand bookshop he inherited from his beloved grandfather. For this bookworm by blood, shutting down Natsuki Books is no easy task – it’s been his sanctuary and hideout from the demands of school and the world at large. However, before the bookshop’s doors are shut for good, a talking cat appears with an unusual request. The feline requests the teenager’s help in saving books from abusive and negligent owners, and it won’t take no for an answer.
Their mission sends this odd couple on an amazing journey to set books free. Through their travels to strange dimensions, the cat and Rintaro meet a businessman who leaves his books to perish on a bookshelf, a scholar who cuts pages into snippets to encourage speed reading, and a publishing drone who cares only about bestsellers. Their adventures culminate in one final, fantastic challenge – the last labyrinth leads Rintaro down a realm where a certain soul hangs in the balance…
Books, first love, fantasy, and an unusual friendship with a talking cat – The Cat Who Saved Books has it all. Sosuke Natsukawa has written a novel where books are so much more than words on paper. You’ll want to follow this “tail” until the very last page.
About the Author
Sōsuke Natsukawa (夏川 草介) was born in 1978 in Osaka, Japan. Prior to his ventures into literature, Natsukawa worked as a doctor in Nagano, Japan where he is currently residing and is still practicing medicine. In 2009, he made his literary debut with 神様のカルテ (Kamisama no Karute, God’s Medical Records). The book detailed his experiences working as a physician in a small hospital. It won the Shogakukan Fiction Prize and received second prize at the Japan Bookseller Awards. It sold over 1.5 million copies and was adapted into a film in Japan. In 2017, he published his sophomore novel, 本を守ろうとする猫の話 (Hon o mamorō to suru neko no hanashi, The Cat Who Saved Books). It was also his first novel translated into English.
I really enjoyed reading your blog post about the prevalence of cats in Japanese literature! It’s fascinating to see how such a seemingly unusual element has become so integrated into the works of prominent writers like Sōseki and Murakami. I’m also intrigued by the book you reviewed, The Cat Who Saved Books, and how it explores the current state of reading and books. Your review has definitely piqued my interest in this book. I do have a question though – do you think the lack of representation of Japanese and female writers referenced in the book reflects a larger issue in the publishing industry or was it a deliberate choice by the author?
I bought this on Saturday as a slightly belated birthday present to myself. It has been on my radar for ages and I’m so glad I decided to finally pick it up alongside ‘She and her Cat.’ Hopefully I’ll get on better with it than The Travelling Cat Chronicles, which just depressed me.