Book Review 『君たちはどう生きるか』by Genzaburo Yoshino

Title: 君たちはどう生きるか
First published: 1948
Published: 2017
Format: Soft cover
Page Count: 318
Translation: How do You Live?, by Bruno Navasky

I have finished reading 『君たちはどう生きるか』, and I did not enjoy reading this book. This being said, I do think that the novel has a lot of qualities and a unique format that makes it interesting, but it just wasn’t for me.

This book was first published in 1937. It is a novel for children or at least, young readers, and it has gained considerable popularity with the publication of a manga adaptation last year. It seems now that this story is very popular among adults. (learn more)

This is what puzzles me the most, I cannot understand why this novel is so popular among adults now… Though I usually appreciate reading books for younger readers, I read this one without real enthusiasm.

Even without speaking of an adult audience, I am confused about who should read this book. We learn in the prologue that the young protagonist Copper is 15-year-old. I also see on the wrapping band that professors recommend this book to middle and high-school students. I can’t imagine high-school student reading this, to me this novel would be better if read by much younger readers (children and not teenagers). But I am not a specialist, and it is just a personal impression…

I started this book with the idea that it would teach the reader the importance of thinking by oneself. This is true in some respects, but I also found that some parts are telling the reader how they should think instead of teaching them how to develop and trust their own judgement. So again, how can this be appealing to contemporary adult readers today?

We can roughly divide this book into three parts:

  • The story of Copper. This is where the novel looks like a novel, with a story, several protagonists, a setting, a climax and a resolution.
  • The Encyclopedia-like parts. The pace of the story is often broken to develop on scientific or historical facts (nothing difficult though).
  • The uncle’s notes. At the end of some chapters, we find the notes of Copper’s uncle. This is where the novel takes a moralistic and didactic tone.

The problem is that enjoyed reading neither of these parts.

1- The story was by far the most interesting to me.

It is a great story for children that teaches them how to get back on their feet when they fail, how to learn from one’s experience and how to see one’s failure as a way to build oneself. But I don’t see why an adult would want to read such a story because the way it unfolds is pretty obvious. There is no surprise about what will happen next.

You can certainly argue that this is a book that makes you reflect on your life, and this is why I think that this story is a great story for children. It points out the importance of reflecting on one’s own life and choices. But once again, there are a lot of other works that bring the same kind of results and are more interesting for adults… I don’t feel that reading this book changed anything about the way I reflect on my life and so on.

When I reached the half of the novel, I really wanted to stop reading it. I forced myself because I wanted to write this review. I did well because I found that the story got more and more interesting with what is called 雪の日の出来事 and its consequences, though, as I said earlier, it follows a well-known pattern and was a little obvious.

2- I was bored to death by what I call the encyclopedia-like parts.

The novel contains several parts that are very encyclopedic-like. I was regularly under the impression that I was reading some kind of “Encyclopedia for the 10-12”, you know the kind of books for children that go through general cultural knowledge. It is certainly very interesting to learn all these scientific and historical facts when you are a child, but as an adult, it was rather a boring experience.

3- The moralising tone of the uncle’s notes were even more annoying to read than the rest.

As for the uncle’s notes, I found some interesting and some less. I found the uncle to be moralising the reader and while Copper might absorb all this with gratitude, I was really annoyed by them. In any case, I did not feel like I was learning something or that this book changed me.

Finally, I should also add that I felt no sympathy for Copper. I found it hard to believe that he should be 14 or 15. To me, his “discoveries”, his experiences and the games he plays with his friends would be more appropriate for a much younger child. But maybe it is just me.

This novel, with the manga adaptation that came out last year, is a best-seller in Japan. I have tried to understand why there was such a hype around this book and I came out with two possible explanations:

The first explanation is that the manga might be more adapted to a broad public than the novel. I haven’t read the manga adaptation so I cannot tell, but the popularity of the story started with the manga and then people decided to read the novel too, so…

I don’t know to which extend the manga stay close to the novel, but if it cut some of the lengthy passages, I can well imagine that it would be easier and more enjoyable to read.

The second explanation is that the novel contains some kind of magic that simply did not work on me.

I am now waiting for Hayao MIYAZAKI’s next film. As I mentioned in the book presentation, Miyazaki said that the title of his upcoming film would be 「君たちはどう生きるか」but I don’t know if it will be a close adaptation of the novel. In any case, I am sure that the magic will work then. I love the Ghibli films, and one of my favourites is Whisper of the Heart, written by Miyazaki and directed by Yoshifumi KONDO, which shares some similar features with 「君たちはどう生きるか」, like the protagonist’s age and the reflections on one’s life it encourages.

「君たちはどう生きるか」is a great book that conveys a positive message and I understand why people would like their children to read it. However, I am much more perplex when it comes to the popularity of this story among adult readers. I really should have bought the manga instead of the novel, and I am almost tempted to buy it know to see if it is more enjoyable to read, but I don’t feel like spending more time with Copper or read one more of his uncle’s notes.