By the Book: Light reading? You won’t find it here

06/06/2011 11:27 AM |

Events pile up and tend to obliterate each other as time passes. There was a huge earthquake and tsunami in Japan and yet now that Bin Laden has been killed, the Mississippi flooded, record-breaking tornadoes suffered and sharks seen at local beaches, the news cycle has mostly forgotten Japan. Local libraries and schools were inspired by Southold resident Sonomi Obinata to make thousands of origami cranes to help the tsunami victims, but now we are focused on Little League games, the annual Relay for Life event and waiting for the next inevitable disaster, natural or otherwise. This is a useful mechanism for emotional survival. We have to forget and move on. But just as we are all plugged into the latest breaking news, that story is obliterating the news from before.

Last month our book discussion group was reading ‘Kafka on the Shore’ by Haruki Murakami, which seemed like an inspired choice because of the world’s greater sensitivity toward Japan in the wake of its multiple disasters. Kafka means crow in Czech and the first chapter is a sort of conversation between a 15-year-old boy who is running away from home and his alter ego, Crow, who tells him he has to become “the toughest 15-year-old on the planet.” In some ways it is a conventional bildungsroman about a young person venturing out into the world and growing up. In other ways it is a surreal collage of Shinto religion, the Oedipus myth and Hegelian dialectics populated by a transgendered person, talking cats (and a man who can talk back to them), a character named Johnnie Walker and another named Colonel Sanders.

Murakami is one of the world’s greatest living novelists, according to many critics, and has won numerous prizes and been translated into many languages. He writes in Japanese and is then translated into English, but his English must be pretty good, since he himself translates various writers into Japanese, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, J.D. Salinger, Raymond Carver, Ursula LeGuin and Grace Paley. He has written many other novels, short stories and even works of nonfiction, most recently “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running,” about his training and competing in marathons. His first work of nonfiction, “Underground,” was written in 1998 after Japan was shaken by the Kobe earthquake and the Aum Shinrikyo gas attack.

“Kafka on the Shore” was such a terrific book that I find myself taking a short fiction break. I am slowly working on ‘Fidelity,’ a book of the wonderful Wendell Berry’s short stories, and looking forward to our next book discussion choice, ‘Tinkers’ by Paul Harding. Meanwhile I am deep into two nonfiction titles of enormous interest. One is an advance reading copy by Kathleen Sharp called ‘Blood Feud: The Man Who Blew the Whistle on One of the Deadliest Prescription Drugs Ever.’ It starts with a gruesomely detailed description of a man who thought he was going to recover from cancer. Before going home from his chemo treatment to celebrate with his wife and children, he was given a shot of Procrit. The story of Procrit, how and why it was developed, and the rivalries between Amgen, Ortho and Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical companies are detailed through the life of salesman Mark Duxbury. The weakness of the regulators and the vulnerability of patients, doctors, hospitals and administrators, scientists, salespeople — all of us — makes for a riveting read.

The other book is ‘A Billion Wicked Thoughts’ by Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam, subtitled “What the World’s Largest Experiment Reveals About Human Desire.” The authors have leapfrogged light years beyond Kinsey to study the secret sexual behavior of more than a hundred million men and women around the world, not by running university psychology experiments on people who are “WEIRD” (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic), but by examining what regular people do on the Internet.

The Internet, where people really think they are anonymous, is the world’s largest experiment on human behavior. The authors analyzed a billion web searches, a million websites, a million erotic videos, a million erotic stories, millions of personal ads and tens of thousands of digitized romance novels. One data set the authors used was a 2006 AOL release of the search histories for 657,426 different people over three months. The release was a public relations disaster for AOL and named one of the “101 Dumbest Moments in Business.” Even though users’ names were not included, it was viewed as an egregious violation of privacy, but has proved a gold mine for researchers.

This book is not for the prudish. I have already learned a new word. Kinks are unusual sexual interests and squicks are unusual sexual interests that gross you out. It can also be used as a verb. Things in this book can squick you out. I may end up with a squicky reaction to these two male writers who seem to be moving toward equating romance writing for females with visual porn for males. But meantime I am enjoying finding out all sorts of arcane information, not all suitable for publication in a family newspaper, but all true, or at least painstakingly researched with footnotes to back it up.

And who knows, it may inspire me to read some romance novels.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.