Breaking Into Japanese Literature: Seven Modern Classics in Parallel Text by Giles Murray, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Natsume Sōseki
Published by Kodansha on June 1st 2012
Genres: Japanese literature, Horror, Classic
Reading great books in the original should be the culmination of language study, but reading Japanese literature unassisted is a daunting task that can defeat even the most able of students. Breaking into Japanese Literature is designed to help you bypass all the frustration and actually enjoy classics of Japanese literature.
Breaking into Japanese Literature features seven graded stories by Natsume Soseki and Akutagawa Ryunosuke, covering a variety of genres.
This book was… not that great. But let me start off on a positive note: I enjoyed the stories. The book contains seven short stories in total, by Natsume Sōseki and Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. The selection of stories, content wise, is good. The stories are quite dark, which I love, and I especially like Akutagawa, so reading these stories wasn’t boring.
Now for the negative…
The aim of this book is to read Japanese literature in the original language. The book is set up to accommodate this: each page contains the original Japanese story on the left page, an English translation on the right page, and vocabulary on the bottom half of both pages. Sounds convenient, but it doesn’t quite get it right. There are no grammar explanations, and the English translations are not 100% literal translations either. The same vocab is repeated every page when necessary, which is convenient but also makes you lazy. On the plus side, there are free audio downloads available for each of the stories, if you like to listen to them while reading (I haven’t downloaded them, so I don’t know if the quality is any good).
The stories themselves are, honestly, too difficult for a book like this. They are separated into three different levels: the first stories are the easiest (and of a pretty good level), and then they gradually become more difficult. They are classic stories, and many use words and kanji that are no longer in use. The same goes for some of the grammar. And the grammar and vocabulary was simply too difficult on the whole. It doesn’t help that there are no grammar explanations in sight and the translations don’t always help with that either (you will get the meaning of the sentence, but you still won’t understand the actual grammar). For me the stories were readable, but I’d judge them as high N2 going up to N1 level.
This book simply doesn’t help anyone ‘break into’ Japanese literature. If you don’t have any prior experience reading Japanese literature in Japanese, this is way too hard. And if you are advanced enough to read stories of this level, there are better choices out there. All of the stories in this book have already been published in English (parts of Soseki’s Ten Nights Dreaming, Akutagawa’s Rashomon, In the Grove, The Nose..), so if you want to read something new and previously untranslated, this is not a great selection of stories.
All in all, a nice book for reading practice at N2+ level. But before buying this book I’d recommend Read Real Japanese Fiction, which is set up better, more accessible level-wise, and has a wider selection of stories (and all of them previously untranslated). If you are looking for more difficult reading material, you might want to check Aozora Bunko instead.