book reviews

The Strange Library, by Haruki Murakami

Random House is still very kindly and generously sending me free books. I guess it’s because they know that when I love a book, even if I can’t review it (new clients mean extremely limited time; also, just so you know, this isn’t what I’d call a review), I can’t keep it to myself and will at least tweet and FB about it. Bless them for thinking that’s enough.

So they sent me Murakami’s upcoming story The Strange Library (12/2014). What a delight this book is! I appreciate when people understand that experiencing a book doesn’t just mean reading the text. It’s everything, from introduction to running a hand over the back cover when you’re done.

This gem of a book came wrapped in plastic. So already the heart’s pounding because you’re going through the motions of unwrapping a gift. At least, I get this feeling when I’m having to remove an exciting product from whatever it comes in: there’s that anticipatory moment, you know? So I pulled at a corner of the plastic with my teeth.

Anyone who’s seen the latest Murakami books knows that Chip Kidd‘s been given more creative freedom. Vellum and cutout covers, cool graphic and illustrative design, and then this, which at first appears to be in a protective cover and then gives the impression that it might read like a notepad.

 

Opening Murakami's The Secret Library, Random House, 2014. Chip Kidd design
Opening Murakami’s The Secret Library, Random House, 2014. Chip Kidd design

But once you lift up and pull down the covers, the pages turn as a normal book. I folded the covers at the back page, and used the top cover as a bookmark the one time I put the book down. Note in the photo above the line along the spine: For internal use only. It’s in the story, but here I think it has a double meaning.

Page 2, with the covers of the book open
Page 2, with the covers of the book open

The Strange Library is a highly imaginative story that showcases the joyful creativity of Murakami and the superb translation skills of Ted Gossen. One might ask how I know it’s a great translation, and okay, I don’t with regard to the original. But in English this book reads very well: the words seem perfect for the telling. I read quite a bit of translated literature (I love it), and when it creates what I think is the right tone for the story and author, it’s succeeded.

So I adored this beautiful little book from start to finish. A young man goes to the library and is sent to the labyrinthine basement he didn’t know existed, where a crotchety old man wants his brains. Thus, he’s kept prisoner until he can read and memorize three books (on tax collecting in the Ottoman Empire) he’s given, in order to make his brain “creamy.” A wraith-like girl and a man in a sheepskin round out the cast of characters, as well as a starling, a frightening hound, and the young man’s mother.

It’s a dreamlike tale with a very likable and sometimes humorous narrative voice, and gives the impression that Murakami let his imagination drift without censorship. Yet, even in its simplicity and brevity, it also carries a strange, at first unidentifiable weight. About After the Quake, a collection of short stories, Murakami said,  “I want to write about people who dream and wait for the night to end, who long for the light so they can hold the ones they love.”

This story is exactly that, actually. I don’t think it’s a story or a fabulously designed book just for story’s or design’s sake. I don’t have a problem with it if it is, but I’m certain there’s more to it. Like a good short story, The Strange Library leaves me to figure out the white space. Which of course I won’t reveal here, because your experience of it would be partly ruined. Already, though, I want to read it again, and just skimming through it, things begin to take on even greater meaning.

And now I also want more Murakami. The more of him I read, the more I learn what it means as a writer to be creative, imaginative, yet grounded in truth.

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6 Comments

    1. Steph Author

      Right? Although I think in other countries it might actually be hardcover! Totally different design, though. Google images shows a fuchsia hardcover with a vintage library card image.

      Reply
      1. Yeah. I think, that’s the UK edition (hardbound of this book). I’ve always prefer to buy hardback books as it preserve the book’s condition and the spine doesn’t easily curve. But i think, I’ll break my tradition with The Strange Library.

        Reply
      2. I actually have the hardcover fuchsia version of the book and I love it! My friend has the Chip Kidd version but I kind of prefer mine. The pop out vintage card is very cool, as you can keep little notes and bookmarks in it. The book itself has dozens of beautiful and detailed pictures ranging in style and color, which I believe are not in the Chip Kidd version. There are these amazing little notes in the book itself by the author, and most of the writing is directly onto the pictures. The pictures themselves are taken from both very old and very new books in the London library. The book is kind of small and easy to pop into a purse and take anywhere.

        Reply

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