Coming-of-Age Classic in "How Do You Live?"

The Fiction Addiction
How Do You Live?(my photo)

How Do You Live? is a classic Japanese middle-grades novel written by Genzaburo Yoshino and translated into English by Bruno Navasky.

The story has two narrators, Copper and his uncle. As young Copper notices things about the world around him, his uncle encourages him with love and care, gently guiding him to become a good person. Copper’s childhood experiences and his thoughts about them are followed with reflections in Uncle’s Notebook, meant for a slightly older Copper to read. This is what makes it such a charming story — Uncle constantly encourages Copper to think about the world and his place in it.

There’s not really a conflict and resolution here. As Copper has typical school boy experiences, the resolution is just him learning more about himself. He learns about friendship and bullying, as well as coming to awareness of social structure. At one point, he realizes that a classmate isn’t lazy or slacking, instead he’s tired at school after doing an adult’s job in the family tofu shop. Copper compares the home above the tofu shop to his own own, and discovers his own luxuries and advantages. He’s also excited, in a sweet, boyish way,  when he gets to try some of the equipment for making pressed tofu. Copper’s growing awareness of his place and privileges is touching and effective.  

The pacing of  How Do You Live? is quite slow. There is attention to description, often mentioning clothes and weather to set the scene. The slow pace works with the overall book being less about what happens next in the plot and more about, well, how to live. (Well,  there’s one section, about Napoleon, that dragged a bit, but in general I was on board with a gentle unfolding.) I liked Copper considering events and feelings, and I especially liked when his mother and uncle told him stories instead of directly instructing him. Readers are often shown hints, rather than being directly told how a character feels, creating a gentle, thoughtful story.

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