A rather beautiful
book by Lafcadio Hearn
I'm a fan of old books and I came across this title recently while browsing the SIUE library for various authors I like. I had already looked through their Borges and Dunsany, so it was time to check out Hearn. They had various titles of his that I've already read, Kwaidan and some of his books about the American South, but one fragile looking volume caught my eye. I wasn't familiar with the title, so I carried it off to a private corner to investigate it.
I was immediately struck by the cover, it was bold, with a stylized, gilt peacock. As I carefully opened it a thin stream of dust and powdered rot poured out onto my lap. Absentmindedly brushing myself off, I received a pleasant surprise from the title page. The author was listed as "Lafcadio Hearn, Lecturer on English Literature in the Imperial University, of Tokyo, Japan". A quick turn to the copyright page confirmed my suspicion. This was an early printing of the book, from 1903, when Hearn was still alive. It gave me a great feeling of connection to think that the book I was holding had been concurrent with the man himself. Flipping though it, I found that the book was even illustrated, with the old sort of engraving prints that leave a relief on the page. I ended up spending the afternoon in that corner.
The full title of the book is Kotto: Being Japanese Curios, with Sundry Cobwebs, "Kottou" being a Japanese word for an antique or curio. The book is divided into three distinct sections. The beginning is a collection of stories Hearn compiled and translated from various older manuscripts. These are mostly ghost stories of one kind or another, although being very old, Japanese ghost stories they are more than a little intriguing. The end of the book consists of various personal anectdotes from Hearn's life. These include a study of crabs, a story about his cat, and the nightmares he has about his impending death, which would come only three years later. These stories are powerful. Hearn put his life into these pages, and it shows. In my experience, this is some of his best work. But even it may be surpassed by the central portion of the book, which Hearn himself did not write.
The middle portion of the volume is devoted to what Hearn refers to as "A Woman's Diary". In it he translates, with some omissions of respect, a diary that was given to him by a friend, that of a Japanese woman who had died a brief time previously. This woman would have been considered average by her peers, but this is part of what makes this text so extraordinary. As a cultural reference alone this text would be interesting, but the ability that it gives one to empathize with this person is what truly makes this work worth reading. This is the story of a significant portion of this woman's adult life, detailing her hopes, fears, joys, and sorrows. I would challenge anyone to read this without feeling them with her. Personally, I had to keep reading just to see how her life turned out.
As for the book I held, it should still be there. I never checked it out for fear of what might happen to it in the world outside the library. Find it, and read it for yourself.