review: How Do You Live Now?

title: How Do You Live?

author: Genzaburō Toshino [US name format)
translator: Bruno Navansky
date: 2021 Algoniquin
main character: Honda Jun’ichi (“Copper”) [US name format]|
Review is based on an advanced copy

How Do You Live? was originally published in 1937 and is set in that same year. As a book that appeared on most every Japanese summer reading list since then, it was read, enjoyed and favorited by Hayao Miyazaki who somewhat recently opted to adapt it to film. Apparently, this interest led to the book some 80 years later being translated into English.

The author, Genzaburō Toshino, was born in Tokyo in 1899. He studied literature and economics but, graduated with a degree in philosophy. Trust me: these details are quite relevant to the story. In 1925 Japan passed the Public Security Preservation Law making it illegal to criticize the government. They were particularly concerned with progressive ideas that reflected socialist or communist thinking. Because of his affiliations, Toshino was arrested. After his release, and prior to WWII, a friend suggested he write an ethics book for children. Instead, he wrote How Do You Live? In the book, Copper is that 15-year-old boy who’s trying to figure out life. His father has passed away and the boy and his mother have moved to a slightly less affluent neighborhood. He’s quite close to his uncle, to whom he often turns for guidance. Several events are developed over the course of a year at his private school and after each, uncle writes in a notebook to his nephew. His lessons, based in philosophy, history or economics, are meant to guide his nephew’s overall development. I thought it was so odd that this Japanese classic was immersed in Western thought. There is a point in the book were Toshino rationalizes this choice but, I think the backstory is that this deliberately done by the author to rebuff the oppression and fascism of the times.

According to Penguin UK, the book was censored in 1942; severely edited to meet government standards in 1945 and eventually re-published in its original form.

While the letters make the story a bit didactic, the story is much more than that. Our young protagonist is provided with some of the best advice life could offer but, how well will he fare?  One of the main points of the book is that we have free choice.  Copper knows and understands his family’s, school’s, and friend’s expectations but, what choices will he make? Choice (economics is the science of choice!) is what this book is all about. How, indeed will we choose to live?

The lack of technology makes the book feel as ageless as it does dated. I definitely agree with reviewer Alison Fincher who wrote that the book doesn’t fit into a typical age structure. While the tone of the story and many of the situations make it middle grade, most children in that age group would only pick up this book if forced required to read it for class and they’d work hard to appreciate for the concepts. A teen, who would better appreciate the concepts, would not appreciate the tone. No doubt the movie will help the book find an audience. It’s a book I’d rather discuss and analyze than review because it really is quite fascinating. I do think that in the hands of a good teacher that it would be great for an economics, ethics or literature class.

I truly believe that stories are meant to express how we come to understand freedom. In most young adult books I’ve read, freedom has been addressed through middle class values and I think that allows us to forget that Blacks, Asian Americans, Indigenous and Latinx people can also be privileged. In revealing Copper’s level of privilege, his uncle constructs how he is meant to frame his world. We get that from the title but, also from how Copper learns about the connections that exist through the supply chain, between consumers and producers and in our heroes. When uncle makes it quite clear that Copper is a consumer and that his working class, scholarship classmate is a producer, uncle tells him, “(t)o mock that from your social position, even for a moment, is to not know your own place and is a great error.” (p. 129)

The questions posed to Copper will lead most readers to question how they live their life. Miyazaki says he’s making the movie “because I do not have the answer.” Good stories lead us to talk and to discover possibilities; they don’t dictate them. That’s how we will find our freedom.

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