Are you poor? Love to read the best classical literature but you’re a little bit stingy?
Well I have the perfect solution for you! The good people at publishing house Penguin are printing 80 “Little Black Classics” books to celebrate their 80th anniversary. There are many wonderful things about these little black classics: they fit in the pocket of your coat, don’t take up much space in your bookshelf, and they are packed with great short stories by some of literature’s biggest names… for just $2 each! That’s less than most chocolate bars nowadays (heck, you could get both for less than $5 and have a swell afternoon!)
The little black classic I’m reviewing today is a beautiful piece of work by the Japanese author Ryunosuke Akatagawa and is called “The Life of a Stupid Man.” The books themselves are incredibly thin but you would be surprised at the amount of content they fit. This book features a short story, and two autobiographical pieces by Akatagawa. The short story, titled In a Bamboo Grove is set in a courthouse: a man has been murdered and the mystery behind who is his killer is unraveled as a variety of characters take the stand. The storytelling is concise and masterful, and the story itself is intriguing.
It is in the next two sections where I believe the book has it’s greatest strength. Death Register and The Life of a Stupid Man are both autobiographical pieces. Death Register is Akatagawa reflecting upon his family life in the context of how all his closest relatives passed away. Sound morbid? It is. Akatagawa is regarded as one of Japan’s greatest short story authors and poets, however it is evident throughout his writing that he suffered from depression terribly.
The Life of a Stupid Man consists of 51 short reflections on various memories in his life. I’ve never seen an autobiography written this way and I thought it was outstanding. Instead of writing long, extensive accounts of every important aspect of his life, Akatagawa expertly condenses all the emotion, all the fine details of his most important memories into just a few lines. You instantly are transported to that time and place, if only for a moment, and see the world the way that he saw it then- then you move on to the next memory. Across the 51 snapshots there are some repetitions, callbacks and themes, so the piece as a whole flows beautifully, almost like a poem. When I reached the end I was overwhelmed by the wisdom Akatagawa seemed to possess, and was very surprised to find that he died by suicide at the age of just 35, which of course meant he wrote the autobiography of his short life also in his 30s. His exploration of life and the nature of sadness ultimately lead to his death, but also influences his incredible work.
This book serves as a beautiful introduction to the work of Akatagawa that will make you want to read his other works, and is stunning and reflective in it’s own right.
Not bad at all for $2!
Thank you for reading, and welcome to The Boss Book Club!
Have you read other works by Akatagawa? Can you recommend any of the other Penguin Little Black Classics? Let me know in the comments below.