Saturday 01 March 2003

Fire and Snow

My bookshelves are organized in order of importance, like the tables in a chic restaurant: the more important the subject, the more likely those books are to be in the workroom where I spend most of my time.

Thus one wall of my workroom is completely covered with books on Japanese language, literature, and film as well as the Pacific War. There’s a separate bookcase for computing books.

American, South American, and European novels, books about writing, psychotherapy, and art are in the hallway, along with a stack of boxes filled with books destined for the secondhand store. In the eight years I’ve lived in this house, the photography books—which once had pride of place on the workroom shelves—have been consigned to Siberia (in the bedroom and living room).

This shift in interest coincided with the opening of a Kinokuniya bookstore across the harbor in Neutral Bay in 1996. It was a long way from Newtown, where I moved a year earlier, but since my Japanese class was also over the bridge in North Sydney I could drop by regularly to check out the new arrivals.

Then, last July, Kinokuniya moved to an enormous space opposite the Town Hall in the center of the CBD. While it’s nowhere near as big as either of the Shinjuku Main or South stores in Tokyo, it’s probably the biggest bookstore in Sydney and easily my favorite: light, spacious, airy, and crammed not just with Japanese books (though that’s its main attraction for me) but books on every imaginable subject. There’s a loyalty program that offers 10-20% discounts (depending on the day of the week, or the weather, or some criterion I haven’t been able to figure out) and a coffee shop too.

Book cover: Kawabata Yasurari's Yukiguni (Snow Country)Earlier in the week I was in the city so I dropped by to browse and, as usual, left with a couple of books. I’d been meaning to buy Kawabata’s Yukiguni (Snow Country) in Japanese, even though I won’t be able to read it for quite a while yet. I was surprised it only cost AU$7.35 (US$4.45) even though that’s almost double the cover price of ¥280 converted to Australian dollars ($3.95). The English translation would be about AU$20. It’s a beautiful little book, with a lovely cover illustration. I’ve been vaguely thinking about reading the English version again but I’ll hold off until I can manage the Japanese.

Book cover: Martin Middlebrook's The Battle of HamburgMy second purchase was Martin Middlebrook’s The Battle of Hamburg: The Firestorm Raid. Late last year, wanting to deepen my understanding of the shift in American bombing tactics that led to the firebombing of Tokyo, I read two of Middlebrook’s books about the European air war. The Nuremburg Raid describes what should have been a routine RAF night attack that turned into a disaster (the target was hardly damaged and 96 of 779 bombers went missing). The Schweinfurt-Regensburg Mission tells the story of how the USAAF lost one in six bombers while trying to destroy the Messerschmitt aircraft factory in Regensburg and the ball-bearing factories at Schweinfurt.

The Battle of Hamburg focuses on one of the “successes” of the Allied bombing campaign against Germany: the entire city was destroyed in a terrible series of firestorms. Snow Country tells the story of a transient love affair between a geisha, Komako, and a wealthy dilettante, Shinamura, who makes three visits to the hot spring where she works.

I didn’t go into Kinokuniya to buy these two books, or any books, and yet they were the ones I walked out with. I’d handed my credit card and The Battle of Hamburg to the sales clerk and she was about to put through the transaction when I asked her if she’d mind waiting while I grabbed another book. For some reason, Snow Country had popped into my head.

Everything’s connected, I believe—that’s why I love hypertext, the Web, weblogs—yet the connection between these two books seems utterly mysterious. I guess I’ll find out eventually what that thread of association is.

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I have a friend who sorts her bookshelves like a dinner party. She "seats" authors together either by those who would enjoy their neighbor's company the most, or - when it would provide maximum entertainment - by who would have the most to argue about.

I'm not quite so ambitious, but it's always fun to peruse her bookshelves and ask, "Now, why is Ernest Hemingway sitting next to Irving Welsh again?"

Posted by Shannon on 2 March 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

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