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Book Review 「君たちはどう生きるか」by 吉野源三郎

I have finished reading 「君たちはどう生きるか」by 吉野源三郎 (よしの・げんざぶろう), and as I said in my monthly review on Monday, I did not enjoy reading this book. This being said, I do think that the novel has a lot of qualities and a unique format that makes it interesting, but it just wasn’t for me.

This book was first published in 1937. It is a novel for children or at least, young readers, and it has gained considerable popularity with the publication of a manga adaptation last year. It seems now that this story is very popular among adults. (learn more)

Why I did not enjoy reading this book

I have no intention to criticise the novel in itself, but I cannot start to understand why it is so popular among adults now… Though I usually appreciate reading books for younger readers (sometimes I even wonder if I am not learning languages only to have a good excuse to read books for children), I read this one without real enthusiasm.

Children book?

I am confused concerning who should read this book. We learn in the prologue that the young protagonist Coper is 15-year-old. I also see on the wrapping band that professors recommend this book to middle and high-school students. I think that there may be a problem of period and culture, but to me, this novel would be better read by much younger readers (children and not teenagers). But I am not a specialist, and it is just a personal impression…

A little too moralistic

I started this book with the idea that it would teach the reader the importance of thinking by himself. This is true in some respects, but I also found that some parts are telling the reader how he should think instead of teaching him how to develop and trust his own judgement.

I think that, as an adult, you don’t really want people to tell you how you should think but are looking for more subtle messages.

A little too encyclopedic

The novel contains several parts that are very encyclopedic-like. I was regularly under the impression that I was reading some kind of “Encyclopedia for the 10-12”, you know the kind of books for children that go through general cultural knowledge.

It is certainly very interesting to learn all these scientific and historical facts when you are a child, but as an adult, it was rather a boring experience.

A little too obvious

Once again, the story is a great story for children that teaches them how to get back on their feet when they fail, how to learn from one’s experience and how to see one’s failure as a way to build oneself. But I don’t see why an adult would want to read such a story because its unfolding is pretty obvious. There is no surprise about what will happen next.

A book that makes you reflect on your life

This is certainly true, and this is why I think that this story is a great story for children. It points out the importance of reflecting on one’s own life and choices. But once again, there are a lot of other works that bring the same kind of results and are more interesting for adults… I don’t feel that reading this book changed anything about the way I reflect on my life and so on.

My reading experience

When I reached the half of the novel, I really wanted to stop reading it. I forced myself because I wanted to write this review. I did well because I found that the story got more and more interesting with what is called 雪の日の出来事 and its consequences, though, as I said earlier, it follows a well-known pattern and was a little obvious.

I think that we can roughly divide this book into three parts:

  • The story of Coper. This is where the novel looks like a novel, with a story, several protagonists, a setting, a climax and a resolution.
  • The Encyclopedia-like parts. The pace of the story is often broken to develop on scientific or historical facts (nothing difficult though).
  • The uncle’s notes. At the end of some chapters, we find the notes of Coper’s uncle. This is where the novel takes a more philosophical or moralistic tone.

The problem is that enjoyed reading neither of these parts. The story was by far the most interesting, but I found it not appealing to adults. I was bored to death by what I call the encyclopedia-like parts. As for the uncle’s notes, I found some interesting and some less. I found the uncle to be moralising the reader and while Coper might absorb all this with gratitude, I was a little impatient while reading these parts. In any case, I did not feel like I was learning something or that this book changed me. I should also add that I felt no sympathy for Coper. Again, this may be a problem of period or culture but I found it hard to believe that he should be 14 or 15. To me, his “discoveries”, his experiences and the games he plays with his friends would be more appropriate for a much younger child. But maybe it is just me.

Two possible explanations

This novel, with the manga adaptation that came out last year, is a best-seller in Japan. I have tried to understand why there was such a craze around this book and I came out with two possible explanations:

First of all, the manga might be more adapted to a broad public than the novel. I haven’t read the manga adaptation so I cannot tell, but the popularity of the story started with the manga and then people decided to read the novel too, so…

I don’t know to which extend the manga stay close to the novel, but if it cut some of the lengthy passages, I can well imagine that it would be easier and more enjoyable to read.

The second explanation is that the novel contains some kind of magic that simply did not work on me.

I am now waiting for Hayao MIYAZAKI’s next film. As I mentioned in the book presentation, Miyazaki said that the title of his upcoming film would be 「君たちはどう生きるか」but I don’t know if it will be a close adaptation of the novel. In any case, I am sure that the magic will work then. I love the Ghibli films, and one of my favourites is Whisper of the Heart, written by Miyazaki and directed by Yoshifumi KONDO, which shares some similar features with 「君たちはどう生きるか」, like the protagonist’s age and the reflections on one’s life it encourages.

Conclusion

「君たちはどう生きるか」is a great book that conveys a positive message and I understand why people would like their children to read it. However, I am much more perplex when it comes to the popularity of this story among adult readers. I really should have bought the manga instead of the novel, and I am almost tempted to buy it know to see if it is more enjoyable to read… but as you can guess, I will not do it, and simply move on to the next book!

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