"The Typographic Imagination"

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Nathan Shockey. The Typographic Imagination: Reading and Writing in Japan’s Age of Modern Print Media. New York: Columbia University Press, 2020. Hardcover, 314p. $65.00 (ISBN 9780231194280). Reviewed by Ikumi Crocoll.

I am someone who is an information and rare-books professional and half-Japanese and have some familiarity with Japanese language, culture, and history (although not necessarily this specific kind of print history). This influenced my reading of Nathan Shockey’s Typographic Imagination, although I do my best in this review to consider both the perspectives of those who have more and less experience with Japan and Japanese. For the most part, this book does not require such cultural knowledge, but I try to note how and where such knowledge might have an impact.

The subtitle of Shockey’s book does a good job of summing up the breadth of this book’s content: Reading and Writing in Japan’s Age of Modern Print Media. The timeframe covered is the late 19th to early 20th century (more specifically, around the 1890s to the early 1930s). In order to explore print media during this time period, Shockey uses a variety of lenses and methodologies related to literature, language, reading history, book history, intellectual history, and others. Some professionals of libraries and archives may be excited by this large-scale overview of the cultural elements that intersect to influence what was being printed at the time; others may be most interested in those chapters more narrowly focused on book/media/reading history.

Rather than a straight chronological treatment of this topic, Shockey breaks the book into two sections. According to Shockey, the first section “details how the mass-market typographic print became ubiquitous and examines how that process transformed the meanings and functions of magazines and books,” while the second section “investigates the vicissitudes of literary writing, linguistic thought, and political action vis-à-vis the rise of the media complex” (18). The first section seems more focused on book, print, and reading history, and therefore may deserve particular attention by those in information studies. Chapter One: Pictures and Voices from a Paper Empire mostly looks at the rise of mass printing and reading through periodicals. Chapter Two discusses the publisher Iwanami Shoten and books printed to a standard small size, called bunkobon, which are now quite familiar in Japan. Shockey makes a particularly lovely point that bunkobon turned every space into a reading space.

Chapter Three is devoted to bibliophiles and used books, libraries and bookstores (mentioning some Western influences). It contains a quotation from Leah Price, who may be familiar to many in information studies because of her work on the novel, book history, and media studies. Shockey mentions Price’s discussion of how books are part of many transactions that “‘stretch far beyond the literary or even the linguistic’ and ‘and accrue meaning not just at the moment of manufacture, but through their subsequent uses’ (91-92) to help set up this chapter on booksellers, traders, and collectors and how their interactions with print media impacted its meaning and value. Shockey also introduces one starting point for the process of Japanese typographic print: the creation of paper through the cutting of timber in the colonies of Korea and Sakhalin (Karafuto). Additionally, there is an analysis of the space and experience of the bookstore, not only the books in it. These different elements also speak to a book-history angle.

The second section starts off with a literary and linguistic focus before returning to book/media history with the discussion of how print and leftist movements intersected. Chapter Four: New Age Sensations: Yokomitsu Riichi and the Contours of Literary Discourse explores literature through a number of angles. Perhaps of most interest to those invested in information studies and not particularly looking for a literary perspective is the beginning of the chapter, which seems more focused on the marketing and mass-marketing of new literature, particularly the new magazine Bungei Jidai (the rest of the chapter tends to use other lenses and analyses, such as textual analysis).

Chapter Five deals with orthography, Romanization, and Esperanto. For those familiar with Japanese language and culture, this chapter might ring many bells, for example with its references to the first modern dictionaries with an “a-i-u-e-o” organization system; discussion of how much kanji “could facilitate the proliferation of mass-market print and thus a literate public…” (164); defenses of the two different kinds of Romanization systems; and the small “ya,” “yu,” “yo.” Perhaps less familiar for some (including myself), is the history of Esperanto in Japan. These various systems influenced what was printed, the markets, and audience.

Chapter Six deals with the Leftist movement in print and readership of the “masses.” Not only does this chapter discuss readership and creators for this material (the latter who faced increasing pressure in order to fulfill the large orders quickly and cheaply) but also, of course, the government’s efforts to control printing through such methods as gathering information and censorship.

The conclusion briefly tells of what happened immediately afterward with WWII and just after the war ended, then bringing the concepts of the book to the digital age of today. Some of these types of discussions are likely quite familiar to those in the library and archives field, such as transitions from print to digital and the invisible labor that goes into all types of media, whether print or digital. There are also discussions of the significance of typographic print, books, and magazines becoming ubiquitous, such as whether that means people are hyper-aware of media’s presence or become desensitized to their presence; and also sometimes how this made the media more into vehicles for content, and people became less conscious of their form.

Overall, Typographic Imagination offers an investigation of typography and print media from numerous angles, showing how it affected socio-cultural history in Japan and vice versa. For those, like myself, who have some familiarity with Japanese culture, this book can enlighten the reader about many elements that have come to be a part of the fabric of many lives in Japan, such as bunkobon and orthographic practices with characters and Romanization. For all, familiar with Japanese cultural elements or not, Shockey provides an in-depth history of mass-printing innovations at the turn of the century. For those mostly knowledgeable about book history in the Western countries, Typographic Imagination can act as an interesting starting point for comparison and contrast and help to begin to put any knowledge of Western book history into an international context (although Shockey does not focus on this kind of comparison).

From a basic cultural and linguistic perspective, a couple additional features that might be helpful would have been to include Japanese characters and a short note of explanation regarding what practice is being followed for naming individuals. Shockey only uses Romanization (i.e., the Japanese pronunciation for words and phrases is represented by the English alphabet) and then his translation of words and phrases. For anyone with a general reading knowledge of basic kanji characters (like myself) and scholars of Japanese, it can be harder to recognize the words and meanings from the English alphabet alone. Having some key kanji words and phrases in parentheses or as a footnote would allow for a more immediate understanding of the exact word and meaning in Japanese before translation. When referring to Japanese names, Shockey uses the last name first. This is the common practice in Japan and in Japanese for names. While it is now not uncommon for Japanese names to be represented in English in this way, for those not aware of such practices and of Japanese naming conventions and/or wondering which particular convention Shockey is following, it would be clearer to have a brief note (for example, where Shockey explains his translation process in the beginning) of clarification. These changes would have helped with reading and understanding the work for different types of readers with different knowledge bases of Japanese language and culture. However, this does not detract from the overall content of the book.

In sum, the book is particularly useful for those wishing to broaden their knowledge of print history beyond the West (although specifically to a Japanese context) or to deepen their knowledge of Japanese print history. While there are other parts of the book that speak to other disciplines, these print history ones (as mentioned previously, most of this content is in the first part, the last chapter of the second part, and the conclusion) are likely to be of most useful reference to the information professional or student. What is more, the broader concepts and the general arc of the historical narrative are not all simply specific to Japan. The rise of mass printing, the broadening of literacy and to whom print media is targeted, and the (at least partial) transition from physical to digital media are stories in print history outside of Japan, too, even if the timeline, actors, exact events, etc., may be different. We are also often asked, in book and print history, to consider various questions. How does the book format impact reading experience? What is the importance of paper production to the process of the creation of print? How is print media marketed and to what impact? How are people paying attention to content versus form? Who are the often invisible laborers behind print production and its technological advancements? Shockey examines these and many other questions in Japanese print history for the time of burgeoning print media that he has chosen. Thus, Typographic Imagination presents familiar concepts in the information profession alongside new lenses in an intense look into Japan’s history surrounding typography in the late 19th and early 20th century.

— Ikumi Crocoll, William Andrews Clark Memorial Library