Assistant Professor of Japanese, Department of Modern and Classical Languages, University of Montana
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Michikusa, Kusamakura, and Sōseki
This presentation brings into dialog descriptions of reading in Sōseki’s novels Michikusa and Kusamakura. These two stories contain descriptions of book-objects belonging to characters of all social classes and genders. In these verbal spaces the characters’ social position is symbolized by their books’ physical formats, titles, and modes of reading. These representations frequently include elite males, such as the nameless painter from Kusamakura and Kenzō from Michikusa, who gain status through owning and interacting with yōsho, or hardback western books. For these erudite males, western books signify membership in (or at least aspirations towards) joining the bunjin class of cultivated individuals. At the same time, depictions of books read by women and other less-erudite males provide characterizations and critiques of feminine readers and nouveau riche book owners. Similarly, for Sōseki as a bunjin and author the visual public presentations of his private space were also an act of position-taking that depended similarly upon often-fictionalized exhibitions of Western books as objects. That is to say, in much the same way that verbal descriptions of elite characters with their hardback books helped create an image of erudite Meiji youth in Sōseki’s stories, photographs of Sōseki called upon the same set of objects to maintain and cultivate his cultural status. When read critically, the function of these verbal and visual descriptions of books and reading help to untangle the complex commercial and cultural sphere of publishing, reading, and book ownership in the early 20th century.