September 2005

Colleen Mondor

features

The End of Everyday Books

Some of my favorite books are old, gorgeously illustrated encyclopedias and atlases. I love how the text and pictures complement one another, play off each other even in some cases, and combine to give the books a deeper and richer nature. I am a big fan of Barbara Hodgson for the same reason; her books are always illustrated with period photos and maps that add several dimensions to her novels. In many ways books designed in this manner, with appreciation for both the text and visuals, seem more literary to me. The authors and publishers clearly take their work so seriously they are willing to pull out all the stops to make their readers’ experience as intense and unique as possible. I am on the lookout for these types of books (both old and new) all the time, and I think I’ve hit a gold mine with Chin Music Press.

Chin Music is a new publisher in Seattle with an intriguing premise: They believe books should be considered “literary objects.” They define this term (and their publishing goal) on their website in a statement from art director, Craig Mod: "So it came to be that we realized we didn't want to make everyday 'books,' but instead objects where form, content and purpose were well thought out and executed with passion. We wanted to produce good, focused literature that was wrapped in bindings and papers and smells that interlocked with the content in a way that we hoped people who enjoy well-made things could respect and hold onto -- literature in the form of a well-designed object: Literary Objects." This is exactly the sort of statement that makes a book lover sit up and take notice and it certainly got my attention. When I later read a brief comparison from Chin Music co-founder Bruce Rutledge between expanding media conglomerates and Violet Beauregarde, I knew these were my kind of people.

The press’s first title is Kuhaku & Other Accounts from Japan, a very unique collection of essays on Japan. In every way it proves itself as a new type of travel book and essential reading for any fan of the country or genre. No part of Kuhaku’s design was left to chance; the size and materials were all specifically chosen. As Mod wrote me recently, “We wanted to produce a book that would be both treasured and well read, protected and would age with style.”

Chin Music accomplished their goals by making the book smaller than average, in a size similar to hardcovers on the Japanese markets. As Mod puts it, this makes it “something one could bring along on a trip without much fuss. We were thinking of the subway commuter or café reader -- the type of reader who always likes to have a book on them -- and wanted Kuhaku to be an effortless companion. We also thought the smaller size made for a more intimate reading experience. We felt it would make the book more precious.”

I couldn’t help but flash to an old episode of the Gilmore Girls after reading this note from Craig. As Rory stuffs more and more large books into her backpack, she finds herself almost tipping over from the eventual weight. But she needs one book for the bus, one for lunch, one for the ride home… and on and on. Kuhaku is the perfect companion for such traveling readers and its cloth cover protects the book from the kind of damage that is so unforgiving on dust jackets. (It also gives the book what Mod terms a “solid and well-made feel.”)

To get around the need for barcodes, blurbs, etc., Kuhaku has a “belly-band,” a “staple of the Japanese publishing industry, [which] is wonderful because you can print it on cheap paper, you can update it if necessary during the middle of a print run for very little money, and the reader can guiltlessly throw it away after purchasing the book. After which, writes Mod, “you’re left with a single clothbound volume. Whole and unburdened -- unsnaggable in a bag and edging closer to being a ‘literary object.'”

The book also includes several illustrations, from the pictures of canned coffee drinks to cartoon-like figures accompanying the very funny glossary definitions (When is the last time a book’s glossary was a joy to read?). The initial plan for the book included finding Japanese artists to be part of the final product, and these range from the drawings of daily life by kozyndan, a couple who specialize in Japanese street scenes, to the work of Peyote, who represents the youthful Japanese fureeta subculture.

What Mod wanted to do with these illustrations was, while echoing the words of Umberto Eco at a recent BEA talk, “get away from the ‘contemporary perversion… that all the novels are not illustrated.' We love old books,” wrote Mod, “Moby Dicks and Huck Finns -- and inspired by illustration and printing from the 18th and 19th century, wanted to bring a modern essence of that to Kuhaku.”

This is a big deal although it doesn’t necessarily seem like it at first. As readers, we are used to books being a certain format, looking a certain way, reading a certain way. There is a continuous discussion in the mainstream media about how graphic novels are "not just comics" because many journalists (and readers) can’t get past the idea that literary books must only include words, and if they are illustrated then they must be something else. I can’t help but think that is why Barbara Hodgson is not as famous as Dan Brown, particularly when her last novel The Lives of Shadows dealt with the very real modern history of Syria, something we all should know more about. Chin Music sees this vacancy in the market as more of an unknown need then anything else, something we don’t all realize we are missing. Mod sees reason to hope however, noticing, “I think that American mainstream publishing today is finally realizing that there’s something to be said for a simple, well-designed book… I think we’re starting to see aesthetic sensibility seep back into the hands of the American masses.”

But while the illustrations and the book’s overall design are very impressive, none of it would matter if the content was not up to the challenge. Kuhaku succeeds on both counts, thus establishing itself in the genre as something completely modern that also manages to harken back to the old travel book style. Indeed, Kuhaku is a book about what Japan is like for the people who live there, not what Westerners think it is like, wish it was like, or hope it is like. This book is not about the West at all, in fact, it is about the East. The surprise for the reader is learning just where the differences and similarities between the two cultures lie.

Bruce Rutledge, Kuhaku’s editor, had several goals when he planned the book. As he wrote me recently, “What we were looking for in our writers were essays on themes of the most quotidian kind that shine light on life in Japan. Thus, we cover funerals, taking out the garbage, marriage, lunch breaks. We tried as much as possible to keep the focus on everyday themes like work, family, love. The reason for this is that these are the themes we hear the least about when reading about Japan. We have plenty of tomes on the yakuza, sex, business, politics but few that deal with daily life.”

He’s dead-on with his assessment, as all I can seem to conjure about Japan’s culture is what I remember from the The Last Samurai (made before Tom Cruise lost his mind), and Lost in Translation, a fabulous movie that dealt with Western reaction to Japan but revealed little about what the Japanese thought or felt themselves. So the question is, do Westerners want to know more about Japan (and other Asian countries) or do we prefer our myths about the East and read books or watch movies that dwell on those images and little else. Chin Music is betting there are curious minds out there and hopes they will find their way to the press for answers.

Kuhaku is primarily a collection of essays, although it does include two short stories as well. The book’s centerpiece is three related pieces by Sumie Kawakami based on interviews she conducted with Japanese women about their infidelities and were originally published in a larger work in Japan, Tsuma-no-Koi. Rutledge sees these essays as the perfect way to “both shatter the Madame Butterfly myth of the pliant female and also give these women a voice. When I tell people Kuhaku contains three essays about married women having affairs,” he continued, “I can tell by the look in their eyes that they think we’re peddling some sort of soft porn. But instead, Sumie gives these women a voice and allows them to tell their stories without the male perspective taking over. Also, I believe that the essays start out being about ‘Japanese women’ and end up being about 'women.' There are certainly strong cultural differences at play here, but their longings, their insecurities, their confessions touch on universal themes.”

Don’t think for a moment that Chin Music is seeking to cash in on the Desperate Housewives craze with Kawakami’s work. Rather, they have provided a platform for a unique interviewer/subject relationship to unfold for Western audiences. According to Kawakami, “affairs (both by husbands and wives) are now more widely accepted by the Japanese society, despite the myth in the West about Japanese women being faithful to their men.” Her goal when writing these essays was to approach the subject from a different perspective, however, and “have a clear focus more on what is behind the seemingly pervasive social phenomena, rather than the stereotypical views that women just want to have fun socially.” The women she talked to are confused, complicated and often unsure just what it is they thought the affairs could bring to their lives. One is a homemaker with two small children who never expected to be a mother so soon and still can not help thinking “like I had been set up, like [my husband] was purposely not being careful.” Another is now divorced from her husband but offers an extraordinary picture of a failing marriage, saying, “Husbands and wives at the terminal stage of deteriorating marriages are straitjacketed by their own selfish ways, aren’t they? One of them is thinking, ‘if we stay together, we will destroy each other. But I can’t be on my own yet, I am scared. I do not know how to live on my own.’ And so without making any progress the couple stays in that state of mutual hurt. That scent of danger is what constitutes complicity, I think.” Brilliantly written, and a perfect example of how similar bad marriages are, regardless of their setting.

Kuhaku explores other themes of daily life as well, including an expat who is annoyed by the neighborhood’s analysis of her garbage, a disturbing new trend of finding suicide partners through the Internet (revealed in a short story), and the collision of Western interests and Eastern religion. In this instance the conflict comes in the form of the new ugly American, the kind who has visited a “Zen Ranch” and feels that enlightenment can be found in an abridged form, over a few weekends of shallow commitment.We all have such little time to find our inner peace, you see.

The most surprising inclusion in the book was purely a pop culture reference to the large quantities of canned coffee that are a staple in Japan. David Cady explores both the designs of the cans as well as some of the many different flavors, offering a peek into a funny corner of the Japanese buying public. According to Rutledge, “It’s everywhere. You can buy cans of it [coffee] on the summit of Mount Fuji.” And while it is amusing to read about and look at, Cady’s essay is included here for a different reason:“It became a sort of metaphor for us,” writes Rutledge, “Americans tend to focus on the samurai ethic, geisha, blue-suited salarymen, green tea, Zen, etc. and so we wanted Kuhaku to focus on the equally prominent things that often get overlooked. Canned coffee is the most glaring example of that, I suppose.”

I am sure it was all green tea in the Zen Ranch that, as Cady and Rutledge explain, would be a lie. But Westerners have always seemed to prefer their exotic version of Asia over the truth. Historically, this made it easier to keep the “little brother” in his place and now it has become a habit. Yet the Japanese are addicted to canned coffee and, according to writer Robert Juppe, Jr., love talking to their dogs. Could they be any more American? (Or could we be any more Japanese?)

Ultimately Chin Music Press seeks to show more Westerners a Japan that is all too often overlooked. “We may be exposing more problems than strengths in Kuhaku.” writes Rutledge, “but I think our book is uniquely suited to people who are really curious about Japan and who are willing to hear stories that might not fit into their overall picture of the country. We’re trying to -- at the very least -- challenge people to see Japan in a different light.”

Chin Music has a lot more planned in the wake of their initial publication and will also be expanding their impressive Internet presence as well. From the start, Rutledge and company have been determined to combine online and traditional media. “It’s no fluke,” he writes, “that we followed up Kuhaku with the online art project, 'buzztracker.' Both respond to the digital age -- Kuhaku by probing the question of what makes a physical book worth keeping, and buzztracker by trying to provide a more relevant front page for reading news online. Because of the time in history we are living in, just about everything we do will somehow be responding to the digital age.”

The synergy between the written and digital word will continue for the press in the future. Their next projects are both based on parts of Kuhaku. One is a book with Kawakami, who will expand her work on the “That Floating Feeling” pieces. Rutledge hopes to have “a very full picture of what men and women in Japan think about marriage sex and fidelity” published in 2006. Also, a site will be launched this Fall called cannedcoffee.com, and is “inspired by the coffee reviews in Kuhaku.” Cannedcoffee.com will contain a lot of coffee art and is aimed at being “an irreverent literary site that deals with coffee culture throughout the world.” As Rutledge puts it, “If we can have cowboy poetry, why not coffee prose?”

They are also working on a book tentatively titled, Sushi in America, which looks at the culture surrounding sushi chefs in America and Japan. It is scheduled for late 2006 at the earliest.

Chin Music Press has a unique presence and history in both the Eastern and Western worlds. It is also a press that enjoys putting more emphasis on collaboration as opposed to discovering star writers. From the looks of their first title it is clear they are positioning themselves to be a presence that the publishing world has never seen before. “It’s natural for us to combine illustrations, photographs and text,” writes Rutledge, “just as it is natural for us to consider every project in both traditional and online media.”

Chin Music sees no limits to its publishing future, which bodes well for both readers and writers. This is a company that is rewriting the rulebook and making a beautiful and interesting product in the process. It’s a rare thing they are doing, and hopefully they will find their place in the market and gain some appreciation for being so brave. Innovators should always be lauded for taking the chances that many of the rest of us never even dream of. And for bringing the world a little closer together, the folks at Chin Music Press should certainly be appreciated.

Kuhaku edited by Bruce Rutledge
Chin Music Press
ISBN: 0974199508
224 pages