Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 6, 2016

To research, or not to research, (when reading a book), that is the question…

Death by WaterI am reading Death by Water by Nobel Laureate Kenzabure Oe and it’s wonderful.  I am reading it slowly to savour all the interesting insights about an ageing man facing mortality.

Kogito Choko is an author, reflecting on his life as a writer, and in particular about his long-held dream of writing a book about his father, who drowned in a river when Choko was a boy of ten.  Oe has already inserted conversations that explain that Choko is referencing a poem that I know, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land 

He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool

(I can’t resist noting here that our own Richard Flanagan drew on The Wasteland back in 1997 when he used death by drowning as a catalyst for exploring the past, in Death of a River Guide).

Choko talks about the authorial dilemmas of writing the book that could answer the question:

As my father was drowning in the vortex of the raging river, how did he pass the last moments of his life?  What was going through his mind?  (p.114)

Have we not all pondered this unanswerable question, at some time, about our loved ones, or about significant people, good or evil, as they lay on their deathbeds?  Choko, with the hubris that he must have in order to write, needs to believe that he can answer it.  (Or else he’s naïve.  I am not sure yet.)

So having decided to write about what his drowning father remembers, he must decide how to structure these thoughts as they flash by:

But what should I, the writer, have my drowning father remember – and in what sequence?  At first I took an oblique approach to the problem, rereading ‘The Snows of Kilmanjaro’.  Before I embarked on the actual writing, I needed to find a way to incorporate bits of history and folklore into the narrative, one by one, without fretting about realism or verisimilitude.  At the same time I was trying to layer brief vignettes throughout the story. (p. 114)

(This method is exactly the method Oe is using in constructing his narrative).

As the reader of this book, I am familiar enough with the poem that’s the catalyst for Choko’s novel, and I know something of the pre- and post-war history of Japan, though not much.  But of its folklore I am ignorant.  I have heard of ‘The Snows of Kilmanjaro’ but know no more than its name.  I have heard of James Frazer’s The Golden Bough which Choko finds amid his father’s possessions and I know from university that it’s a comparative study of myth which presumably includes Japanese folklore.  But I’ve never set eyes on it…

So here’s the rub: should I stop reading and Google Japanese folklore so that I can enjoy whatever allusions are made?  A while ago I was mildly indignant about a spoiler in a review which claimed that everyone would have Googled for it anyway because these days people routinely do.  Well, I routinely don’t.  But I am reading a splendid novel by a Nobel Laureate and wondering if, for this book, I should…

What do you do, readers?  Do you Google elements of a book that mystify you?  Do you research a novel’s background because you’re worried you’ll miss or misunderstand something important?  Or do you just let it pass by and take the book as it comes, and work its magic on you as are you are, with the knowledge and experience that you have as you enter the pages of the book?

Author: Kenzaburo Oe
Title: Death by Water
Translated from the Japanese by Deborah Boliver Boehm
Publisher: Atlantic Books, 2015
ISBN:9780857895455 (hbk, RRP $39.99)
Review copy courtesy of Allen and Unwin Australia

Available from Fishpond: Death by Water


Responses

  1. Yes, this is a beautiful book, a good chance of being my pick for this month :) When reading it, I wasn’t so concerned with the references to external stories as with the links to Oe’s own work, with Kogito’s previous novels actually being Oe’s. Sadly, as I said in my review, of the six Kogito Choko books (of which this is the fifth), only two have been translated into English (the only other one is the first one, ‘The Changeling’)…

    My advice, by the way, would be to keep going without Googling ;)

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    • Yes, that absence of translations is interesting in itself, IMO. Oe was awarded the Nobel in 1994, and yet only two Oe books translated – compare this with Modiano, Nobelled in 2014 and heaps of his books now available after an initial dearth. Are translators of Japanese too busy with the prolific and best-selling Murakami? (Remember they had to use two for 1Q84?) Or is it just that there are more translators for French? Has the length of the books got something to do with it? (Pushkin & Peirene translations are all short, or novella length at best, from what I’ve seen of them).
      It comes back to a question I’ve never seen answered properly: who chooses which books get translated, and why?
      Re Google: do you ever? If you do, what prompts it?

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  2. Lots of factors: language, availability of translators, length of work and (most importantly) how many books will sell. I fear most of this is market driven, and there are plenty of people wanting to read books from French, and a lot of people able to translate them; neither is true for Japanese on the whole. In fact, since becoming a proponent of J-Lit, it staggers me how often people say they don’t get it and use the ‘cultural differences’ as an excuse to avoid it. Also, don’t forget that there are gatekeepers in both directions: publishers choosing what to publish, and governments/cultural agencies choosing what to push…

    Re: Google, I virtually never look things up while I’m reading as I don’t really want to risk finding things out that may actually be important in the book (e.g. history, wars). I often have a quick look afterwards, but I take it as it comes usually; what I make of the book is where I am as a person and reader at this point in time. Next time might be a very different, and better informed, reading :)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I think that’s what I do… take it as it comes… though it’s here where I’m out of my comfort zone that I’m considering it.

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  3. The short answer is, “it depends”. The other short answer is “rarely”. But I do sometimes, if I really think I need to know something to understand or I am intrigued enough to want to know it or I’m really really inspired to more fully understand. This latter is when I’m so loving the book and think the author is doing something so interesting and special that it’s worth the investment, but mostly I’m happy for the book to stand on its own, even if I don’t understand every allusion. As you probably know by now, I’m a fence-sitter, who rarely has a definitive opinion.

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  4. PS I’m glad you’re discovering the gorgeousness of Japanese literature! Much of it is so ethereal, contemplative.

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    • Yes, though I think that ethereal, contemplative quality – also the sense of restraint in all things – may be what Tony says that people don’t ‘get’. Not that (as you know) I’m one for decisive plots and frantic action, but I have to be in the mood for Japanese lit, such as I know it.
      Of course, the bar is set high now that I’m reading a Nobel Laureate!

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      • Always good, though ;)

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        • (Of course, that’s easy for me to say, with a J-Lit library well into triple figures just over my shoulder…)

          Liked by 1 person

          • LOL I’ve got six, and three of those are Murakami….

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            • Murakami? Eighteen from Haruki and five by Ryu (oh, and six by Oe) – I really need bigger bookshelves :(

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              • Gosh, I’m not even going to try and keep up with that…

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      • It probably is an acquired taste but I love it. I haven’t read him, but I’ve read the other Japanese Nobel Laureate Yasunari Kawabata.

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        • I’ve got his Thousand Cranes somewhere on the TBR.

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  5. Yes, I do this a lot. I was Wikipedia – ing like mad when I read my first Ondjaki recently, because I know nothing about Angola, who colonizedit and why, which was kind of important. But it’s a habit of like to break, maybe. It takes you out of the story.

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    • Hi Laura, I think I might do that too if I were reading about somewhere I knew nothing about and it seemed important to know. I guess a lot depends on whether we’re reading within our comfort zones or not. If I read, for example, from the Balkans, I wouldn’t necessarily Google while reading the book, but I almost certainly would when writing the review. And that would be true for most African countries for me, and for nearly all the smaller countries in South America.

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  6. The temptation is great nowadays with information so accessible but I try to hold off and look stuff up at the end – doesn’t always work though…

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    • Perhaps it depends a bit on what we read the book on. With a kindle or an iPad it’s so easy to find out straight away?

      Liked by 1 person

  7. It’s tempting but I usually resist googling just as I resist reading all the footnotes you get in the classics. I used to stop reading whenever I came across something I didn’t understand but discovered when I was reading Rohintin Mistry that it was disruptive and spoiling my enjoyment of the book. So now I wait to finish the book and then look up just a few else,e to thet interested me the most.

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    • I don’t mind footnotes in non-fiction, though I’d rather end-notes, but not in fiction at all. I’ve come across a couple of books where au author has added a brief explanatory note at the beginning to cover things that most people might not know, I think that’s a better idea.

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  8. I like to go with the flow of the book, even though I am probably missing understanding some of the allusions. If I really got stuck or thought the author didn’t make sense, I might do a modest amount of googling.

    What usually happens is that when a book moves me, I will read related books after the fact, sort of filling in the gaps. I do the same thing with travel — read the guide books after I get home.

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    • *snap* I do that too! I like to read some fiction of the country I’m visiting, and maybe a bit of its history, but yes, I save the guide books till I get home when I scrapbook my trip. (Which reminds me, I still haven’t finished scrapbooking Russia, and that was in 2012).

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  9. Perhaps I’m in the minority but I say Google away! I don’t ever google a book before I’ve finished it, but I certainly google things within the book- places, foods, historical events. I find it really helps my enjoyment with the book. I’m reading Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry at the moment- a story set in 1930s Mississippi full of racism and familial echoes of slavery. I’ve googled things such as crowder peas and clabbered milk, and the Reconstruction. I love little details like these, and that I can sate my curiosity so easily- it really does augment my reading.

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    • I know what you mean, and your comment has triggered a reminder that what both The Spouse and I do is to ask each other about things (or words) we’ve come across. Sometimes we do this when we are reading, and sometimes it’s at some other time, maybe over a meal, or taking a walk, when something has been niggling away in memory. I remember being mystified by ‘panhandle’ in Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News and asking him if he knew what it was (because he’s been to America and I haven’t). Well, asking someone is not unlike Googling, eh?

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  10. I’m definitely a googler. Particularly when I’m reading historical novels, looking up other sources a) let’s me check for accuracy; and b) reinforces my understanding – mostly of things I’ve read before and forgotten, I must say.

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    • *chuckle* Ah yes, Google is so good for those half-remembered things! And so is Goodreads, for those books where you can remember the author’s name but not the title, or vice versa.
      So, when you Google, are you reading print and going to a computer, or are you reading with a device that makes it easy? (My Kindle, for example, if you highlight a word, will automatically look something up for you at Wikipedia, or provide a definition from a dictionary.)

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      • Not a kindler, but sounds like I should be!

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        • LOL it would be ironic indeed if you took me as a poster-girl for a Kindle… I hate the thing, and only use it when I have to, when I can’t get the book some other way. And I do find that having that research function, and the capacity to record notes on it, slows down my reading if I succumb. I don’t (as I’ve said) use the Wikipedia function, and only very rarely the dictionary, but I find myself highlighting all over the place, most of which turns out to be unimportant later.

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          • I won’t tell anyone I downloaded kindle on your advice. I don’t highlight or underline but after the endless dissertation and now blogging I have exercise books full of quotes I never used. But don’t you hate knowing you’ve read the perfect quote and had to read the whole book again to find it.

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            • *chuckle* Yes.
              But also no. Because if it really were ‘the perfect quote’ you’d remember it, right?

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              • Nope! Not with my memory these days!

                And I laughed at your highlighting comment. I do that too … and occasionally add notes … but I never make them public because I’d be embarrassed for people to see all the nonsense I highlight. Sometimes I just do it to remind me of a scene or plot point. I do like being able to scan them when I’m doing my review.

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                • No, you don’t, surely not! I knew you pencilled marginalia, but highlighting that can’t be rubbed out? LOL I am shocked!

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                • (hi WG). My biggest problem is audio books, I either have to stop and take notes, or start again when I get home with a real book from the library. And yes, I generally won’t mark a book unless I’ve bought an extra copy for that purpose

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                • Yes, agreed. The reviews of audio books on this blog show that too: I used to listen to them while I was driving, and I didn’t make notes either when I got to work or when I got home exhausted at the end of the day. So I had to rely entirely on my memory: I like to think that maybe I captured the ‘essence’ of those books, but not much more!

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                • Yes, I feel the same with audiobooks, which is partly why I don’t use them – but in your job I would. With Cadence, I took notes when hubby was driving and tried to remember other stuff when he wasn’t but fortunately Mum had the book so I was able to check it too.

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  11. I don’t put the book down and google straight away, but I write myself a little note, and google later. When I read non fiction and if there is something I don’t understand I will put the book down and google straight away. I like reading Japanese novels as they are always different; they take me out of my comfort zone. Hotel Iris by Yoko Ogawa, and The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto are strange but good reads. I am a fan of Haruki Murakami, especially his early novels and loved Kafka on the Shore.

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    • I wasn’t keen on 1Q84, but I have those early novels on the TBR because they are listed in 1001 books. I keep meaning to read them during J-Lit week/month but then get absorbed in something else…
      I take notes too, either in my journal, or on sticky notes. When I take a book out, I take a few leaves from a pad of sticky notes (the bigger ones, with lines on them) which I use as a bookmark, and then I can always take notes even when I’m reading over a coffee in a café.
      How interesting it is to hear the different ways that people read!

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  12. I do google when I read. Mostly foods and drinks. Sometimes people or places. I frequently use Google maps to bring up a place and go to street view and wander around a bit.
    I’ve been reading geographically for years (since way before the Internet) and I find that having ready access to research usually enhances my enjoyment of a book set in an unfamiliar place. This is especially true for translated works.
    But I didn’t when reading Death By Water because I got so absorbed in the story.

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    • That’s interesting – and you’ve reminded me that I did geographical Googling when I was reading War and Peace because I couldn’t follow the movement of the armies in the book. And I’ve also remembered that somewhere here on this blog I did a post about some GoogleMaps literary site that plotted settings – which I thought was terrific at the time (but have forgotten about until now).
      Death by Water *is* totally absorbing. I am up to the part where Aka is sending those letters about Umaiko’s performance of Kokoro, another J-Lit book on my TBR which is beckoning!

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      • I think the most Google map following I’ve done for J-Lit was when I read A True Novel by Minae Mizumura. The setting was so much a part of the story that I wanted to see it. Same with Tales from a Mountain Cave: Stories from Japan’s Northeast by Hisashi Inoue.
        Right now I’m reading K-Lit, The Vegetarian which isn’t something that calls for Googling!

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        • I must admit I do like blog reviews that include images of the setting or particular aspects of the story e.g. art works – even though I know they probably have breached copyright with some of the images.

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  13. I think I’d probably keep reading and maybe check references etc at the end if I wanted to, otherwise the flow of the book gets interrupted.

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    • Hi Vicky, thanks for your comment:)
      I agree about not interrupting the flow, but sometimes it’s really difficult. I came across a part where he references a painting by a Mexican artist, and I thought, I could just stop reading for a minute to Google him and maybe find this picture… and then there goes an hour or so when I could have been reading!
      The same thing happened when there was a reference to Japanese anime and ‘period fiction’ using the term ‘one-legged and one-eyed’ to mean someone with magical powers…
      LOL the dilemmas of reading in the modern world!

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  14. Great questions! For me it all depends on how much I think knowing more will improve my reading experience. If I think it will matter then I will turn to google, not while I am reading though, I wait until after because I don’t want to interrupt the reading. Sometimes I might even wait until I have finished the book. And then of course sometimes I decide I just can’t be bothered.

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    • Hi Stefanie,
      For you, does it make a difference what format you’re reading in, print or eBook?

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      • Hmm, you know I think I am less likely to look something up from an ebook. My ereader is a Kobo Touch with e-ink not a tablet so internet searching is terrible. Plus I don’t tend to read complicated books on an ereader because I find my comprehension goes down a bit so the kind of ebooks I read generally don’t give me a reason to need or want to do any extra research.

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        • That’s interesting, I tend to read a certain kind of book on my Kindle too. Books that I can read at intervals, in waiting rooms or trains, rather than books that must be read with as little interruption as possible.

          Liked by 1 person

  15. I allow the books I read to send me all over the Internet following the reading pathways with abandon. It is a standard part of fully inhabiting what I read.

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    • Ah … I have an image of one of Buzan’s mind maps, vivid in its complexity, branching out in delicate abandon…

      Liked by 1 person

  16. […] In a previous post I noticed the parallels between Kogito’s authorial dilemmas and the methods by which Oe himself has resolved them: […]

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