In Praise of Shadows

Last week, while at the used bookstore, my partner-in-crime bought several books off of the clearance rack with the idea of altering them. Generally, these books are in poor condition and not readable, much less collectible.

One of the books she bought (for $1.50) was a small, thin paperback, all of 48 pages long. It's condition wasn't the best, but considering it was printed in 1977, I was impressed by how not-beat-up it was.

This morning, I found this book sitting on my chair and quizzically looked up. "You should read that. I think you'll really like it." I love my wife. Here's a person, who buys throw-away books to alter, but before doing so, actually reads the books. In this instance, she said, "I think you'll really love the language - it's melodic and poetic, and it talks about architecture."

So, I sat down and began reading this (translated) essay on Japanese architecture, written in 1933 by Jun'ichrio Tanizaki. I was immediately tickled by his language and observations of architectural elements (the toilet in particular). Never have I read such poetic verse in celebration of the bathroom. (& in this, I am not being ironic).
"No words can describe that sensation, as one sits in the dim light, basking in the faint glow reflected from the shoji, lost in meditation or gazing out at the garden."
Or further along when he talks about the materials whose beauty is honored in Asian culture vs. those thought to be beautiful in Western culture:
"The Chinese also love jade. That strange lump of stone with its faintly muddy light, like the crystallized air of the centuries, melting dimly, dully back, deeper and deeper...."
 In reading, I had to remind myself that it was written in 1933 with excerpts translated in 1955. The term "Orientals" is used often as a self-descriptive term of the author's culture and if read superficially, In Praise of Shadows could come across as rather sexist, racist, and ethnocentric. On deeper reading, however, it comes across as a search for beauty in the shadows with the appreciation of a slower culture that honors the history and stories of objects.

Edwin O. Reischauer of Harvard University, hits the nail on the head with his review:
"...Tanizaki captures in an amusing, flowing commentary on architecture, drama, food, feminine beauty, and many other aspects of Japanese life the uneasy mixing of two clashing aesthetic traditions based on differing technologies. He makes clear his own love of the softer, quieter, more shadowy, older aesthetic tradition and his pain as it is challenged by the brighter, more garish products of Western technology."
Out of curiosity, I checked Abebooks to see if there were any copies to be had (so I could turn this copy back over to my wife for its intended purpose). Strangely, this unassuming, 48-page essay appears to be highly valued.

A little background on the essay:

One Abebooks listing, stating that it is a "First Edition" published by Leete's Island Books is asking $499 for this little paperback translation, however, I find the high price a bit suspect.

Other listings put the 1977 publication value at between $30 - $80 (with prices as low as $10). Most of these listings, however, don't mention if it's a first printing - so it's not clear why the prices are so high. This edition went into multiple printings (at least 7), and other book-selling sites are listing even later printings at $50 and higher.

The 2006 edition, published by Vintage Books, is listing for up to $73 (but, again, with prices as low as $10).

There's really not enough information on the print runs of this title to understand why some sellers are asking $10 (for what they describe as a Very Good condition, first print) and others are asking $500.

Collectibility aside, I highly recommend reading it. The fabulous thing is, you don't have to buy the book to do so because it's made available online for free! You can download Tanizaki's full essay (in PDF form) here or here.

Labels: , , , , ,