How Do You Live? by Genzaburo Yoshino
I’ll be honest: I didn’t expect a children’s book – particularly one originally published in 1930s Japan, translated to English for the first time this year – to be my favourite book of 2021. But then, one could barely have expected How Do You Live? to exist at all, such is its astonishing singularity. Written just as totalitarianism was gripping pre-WWII Japan, Genzaburo Yoshino was inspired to write this 1937 treatise on the importance of freedom and humanist thought disguised as a children’s novel – one which was promptly banned for its subversiveness just a few years later.
Though the plot of the novel is fairly straightforward – it follows young Copper, a 15-year-old boy, through school, home, and social life as he learns and grows – its complexity stems from its narration, which alternates chapter to chapter between an omniscient narrator and the boy’s uncle who, as he raises the thoughtful young man, writes his thoughts, feelings and ideas in journal entries addressed to Copper in which he teaches the boy (and readers) lessons about philosophy, art, economics and culture. By the book’s end, we haven’t just read a coming-of-age tale but a vital and timeless text about the importance of freedom and humanist thought. Over eight decades later, How Do You Live? speaks as much to our current socio-political climate as the one it sprang from.
Stephen Carlick, Associate Editor