Saturday 23 February 2008

Suicide, Stories, and Book Covers

Ryunosuke Akutagawa's Rashomon and 17 Other Stories is one of the best collections I've read in a long time. The stories represent a wide variety of topics and approaches and really show, I think, why Akutagawa is now considered the "father of the Japanese short story." Tales like "Hell Screen" and "The Story of a Head that Fell Off" are pure genius and will stay with me for a long time.

What all of Akutgawa's tales have in common is a horribly nihilistic view of life and the inescapability of death. Unlike Mishima, Akutagawa didn't infuse death with the rhetorical heroics of death - death here is, instead, a kind of lurid and animalistic force that relentlessly pursues his narrators (and him, given how apparently autobiographical his works are) into eventual madness and physical breakdown.

And indeed, Akutagawa took his own life when he was only 35 due to a number of factors including guilt over his infidelity, fear of going mad as his mother did, the financial burden of taking care of his own and his sister's family, and increasingly unrelenting insomnia. Some stupid doctor prescribed him nasty narcotics to help him with the sleep and soon afterwards he overdosed on them. All of these issues and anxiety find there way into the stories in Rashomon.

Akutagawa with just one book has launched himself into the "Colleen's favourite author" vault - quite a feat!

But there's something else I was to talk about here: the book's cover. Penguin, in what I assume is an attempt to convince younger readers to check out older classics of literature (Akutagawa killed himself in 1927), is creating a whole new line of what they're calling Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions - an example of which you can see above. This Deluxe cover makes Rashomon look like manga, but it's nothing of the sort.

Similarly flash covers have been produced for other classics like Voltaire's Candide. I really can't decide if I think this is a good idea or not. The covers might draw younger, skeptical readers in, but how many will give up when they realize (likely before they even buy the book) that what they're getting is not what the cover promises them?

Or, is this an ingenius marketing ploy that correctly assumes that younger readers just need their basic attention drawn to something in a shiny new package to realize that it's not uncool after all, even if their old dad is reading the exact same book but with a different cover (see below)? I'd actually like to see some stats on this because by all accounts, kids aren't reading much these days save for all that Harry Potter stuff.

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