Reading Progress: Making my way through difficult books

I am currently reading two challenging books that are not fiction 「在日」by 姜尚中 (カン・サンジュン) and 「朝鮮の開国と日清戦争」by 渡辺装機 (わたなべそうき).

While reading these difficult books, I visualised myself trying to hold on to some kind of imaginary comprehension line.

reading progress - read difficult books.jpg

To me, this comprehension line is the point where you go from darkness to light. It is also the point from which I can go on reading the book because I understand enough to keep going.

When I find myself completely under the line, this means that I picked a book too difficult for me and reading it is more painful than anything. On the contrary, when I feel like I am high above the line, I am reading an easy book and can fully enjoy what I read. This is the point when the thought “I am reading this author” becomes stronger than the thought “I am reading in Japanese”, if it makes sense.

I feel that every book comes with a starting cursor that corresponds to the degree of comprehension I have of it without making particular efforts to understand it. As you can see in the drawing, 「在日」and 「朝鮮の開国と日清戦争」come with a different starting point.

If I read 「在日」without making efforts, I understand enough to know what the author is saying and where the book is going. But I miss a lot of subtilities, references and implications. The author would draw conclusions and, even though I would understand them, I would not quite be able to follow the path that led to them.

With 「朝鮮の開国と日清戦争」, the starting point is so low that if I just open this book and start reading without any particular commitment, I understand nothing at all.

But I also feel that my attitude towards the book can influence the book’s level. In other words, I can change the “starting cursor” of the book. This takes efforts, concentration and using the dictionary. As both books are dealing with History, I also need to look up references that might be obvious to the author but are not to me. This adds a lot of work, but it also allows me to understand the book better.

In the case of 「在日」, I can reach a very good comprehension of it if only I make an effort. Sometimes I just go on reading without making efforts because I am tired and I think “ok, I see what the author means”. But when I do try to understand a passage well, look up every unknown word, read all the Wikipedia pages I can find relative to the events cited by the author… I feel that I can grasp all the implications implied by what the author says, that I really learned something and that I know how good this book is and why. And then I feel bad when I think of all the other passages that I read too fast, just to be done with it, so to speak.

「朝鮮の開国と日清戦争」is different. I have to make all the efforts I can to only reach the comprehension line and keep going. In other words, I feel that the higher point I can reach with this book is understanding enough to go on reading. But that’s okay.

Reading progress

Since last time, I read chapter 2 and chapter 3 of 「在日」. Chapter 2 was relatively easy to read because Kang talks about two persons that influenced him as a child. Kang’s narrative is filled with memories from his childhood, and there was no big difficulty in reading it.

Chapter 3, however, is more political and includes a lot of references to the political background of the 70’s in Japan and Korea. This was more challenging because I had to look up those references. For example, Kang evokes three events that deeply shocked people at the time: 三島由紀夫の割腹自殺 (suicide of Yukio MISHIMA), 連合赤軍事件 (purge inside the United Red Army) and 浅間山荘事件 (the Asama Sanso incident, also involving the United Red Army).

Of the three events, I knew only Mishima’s suicide, so I had to do some research. I enjoyed doing it because it was a good opportunity to learn more about Japan recent history!

The end of the chapter, however, was more about political events in Korea, and how it influenced the author. I must admit that I may have read this part a little too fast, and I should certainly re-read it.

For 「朝鮮の開国と日清戦争」, I am slowly making my way through Chapter 2. Like the title says, this book is about the opening of Korea and the Sino-Japanese war. Chapter 1 was surprisingly accessible to me, and it gave me the impression that I could read this book. Now that I have reached chapter 2, I am disillusioned.

The first chapter focused on Western attempts to trade with Korea. It was mainly about the United States and France. The author was, I think, addressing a readership that possibly knew nothing of the political situation inside the U.S at the time. As a consequence, everything was explained with easy words, and I felt that the author wanted to be sure the reader followed him.

The beginning of the second chapter was still okay because it focused on Korea. However, I am now in a subchapter called “明治六年の政変”, and it is all about Japan. All of a sudden, the book’s cursor sinks. It may be that the author expects his readers to have some good knowledge of Japan History and does not bother explaining everything. But the real difficulty lies in the names and kanji. I mean, you may know Japan History because you have read books in English (which is not even my case), but if you don’t know how the names are written in kanji, you still feel lost when reading a History book in Japanese. For example, I know the name Saigo Takamori and, like anyone fascinated with this period, have some basic knowledge of his life, but I was at a loss to tell what 西郷隆盛 means, haha.

To give you a more concrete example, the very first sentence of this subchapter is:

維新三傑と呼ばれている政治家は薩摩出身の西郷隆盛大久保利通そして長州出身の木戸孝允桂小五郎)である。” (p.52)

Now that I know what this is about, I don’t find this sentence difficult at all. But imagine my state of mind when I first read this. It was the beginning of a subchapter, and I felt empowered because I was beginning a new section. So here I was, thinking “I can do it!” and the very first sentence I read is full of unknown kanji words to me (all the underlined ones…). This is the moment when I close my book and start playing Animal Crossing on my 3DS, haha.

I wish I had learned Japanese at the University and had History classes that would have brought me through all this! I wonder if I can find a History book written in English but which also provides the names in kanji. It would be very useful.

Anyway, I am done with this subchapter now, but I ended up reading it without understanding much of it. I am just hoping that the next subchapter will be easier.

Taking notes

One thing that really helps me with these books is to take notes. First, it is important that I write down every name because most of them are cited more than once but I will probably have forgotten the kanji by the time they reappear. Some vocabulary is also recurrent, so it is good to have it written down somewhere.

I also complete my notes with additional information I find on Wikipedia.

I also summarise every part that I have read because I think that I might want to re-read my notes later. Moreover, if I happen to let the book untouched for several days, I just have to re-read my notes before getting started again.

Finally, I write down the pages that I didn’t understand and try to be honest with it. I sometimes write that I can’t understand a passage but guess that the general meaning is this or that. I want to think that doing this will allow me to come back later and re-read the difficult passages. Sincerely, I don’t think that I will do it, but who knows? In any case, writing this sort of confession allows me to go further. I feel like I am telling to myself (or to my notebook) “ok, I didn’t understand this passage, I completely acknowledge that, I think that what the author means is… but I may be wrong, let’s now move to the next paragraph.”

So, this was me struggling with my challenging books! 😄