I started out with comics which we bought from a tiny second hand book shop in Roppongi on Saturday mornings and young adult books like The Hardy Boys (the end of every chapter a cliff hanger!) which I found in the school library. Our first visits to the library with the class when I was ten or so were a revelation. To me the library was like an adventure, like rummaging through a treasure chest. So much to search through, so much to discover. And I enjoyed the freedom of the process, too. No supervision, no length instructions. Get in there and find what you like. And then when you do - you can take some of them home. For free. What's not to love? I still love libraries and go regularly.
Book shops, too. On Sundays, with the family, after a movie and dinner, sometimes we would go into a Tokyo bookshop that had an English language section right up the back in the far right corner. We weren't a rich family and the new books were imported and premium priced - so purchase was not an option. But looking was free. And in it's own funny way, this restriction made the paperbacks even more appealing. I would found ones that I was interested in and imagine what it would be like to read them after fully scouring the cover, the mini reviews, and snippets of the contents.
My parents were readers and had a pretty decent size book shelf in their bedroom. I don't recall reading any of their paperbacks - different tastes - but I poured over all the larger format art books (my Mum is an artist), the full colour, glossy, large format travel books and eventually, and impactfully, the mysteriously alluring, illustrated classic; The Joy Of Sex - which provided a complete and illuminating education.
So the reading culture was a firm part of my upbringing - and I'm grateful for it. Mum and Dad encouraged it and as a household, we subscribed to Time magazine, Newsweek, National Geographic and Reader's Digest. A few years later, I used my pocket money for a personal subscription to other magazines (from the US) including National Lampoon, Details and Esquire.
But books - paperbacks - were my big love - on par with my passion for comics - which was huge! (What are comics if not abridged books, packed with glorious illustrations? Or elaborate story boards for movies of the imagination?)
I found a tiny bookshop in Hiroo, just up the road from the station, which was not too far from our house in Nishi Azabu. Up the front on the right hand side, just about eye level there were three shelves with English language paperbacks. This became one of my main sources of self selected reading material for a number of years. Even though, there were probably only a total of less than a hundred titles - I would often an hour or longer, after school, sifting through them. I would limit my purchase to one at a time, mostly - unless there was a new influx of numerous guaranteed winners - which wasn't that often - but was exciting and appreciated.
They usually cost about 200 yen each at the time which was not a lot but still a considerable amount. My methodology was thorough. I would narrow my options down to top three and work it out from there. My goal was to never buy a book that I would not be compelled to finish. Pretty good was not good enough. I was looking for treasure. Of course, you can't always know until you get into with books but you can hone your assessment skills.
We had to wear (dumb) school uniforms - grey pants (itchy and boring), a white collared shirt (choking), a red tie (clownish) and a heavy dark blue blazer with the school's (SS-like) insignia on the front right hand pocket. The jacket was the only thing I didn't mind - because it had lots of pockets. Two hip level ones, one top front and an inside right hand one, as well. And anyone who knows me, knows I love pockets. I used to carry one, and sometimes two, paperbacks at all times. One at each side. Like a literary gunslinger. Out of my class of say, thirty, there were two others who also came to adopt this convention - Chris Styles and Zach Callagher. We would always know what the other was reading (or had lined up for next.) We sometimes did some swapping but not all that often. Off the top of my head, some writers I remember reading were Alistair Maclean (so compelling!), James Clavell (a masterful storyteller - King Rat, Shogun) , Michael Crichton (The Andromeda Stain blew my mind!), John Fowles (The Magus - game changer!) and the immensely relatable and infuential Horse Feather by Woody Allen. Just as enjoyable and meaningful were some more obscure titles by less celebrated authors that were quirky and esoteric but still enticing and nourishing. I remember one about a teenage girl with evil powers (title unknown) and another about a female spy in Hong Kong who had a lesbian encounter around page 83. Another great one was What Really Happened To The Class of '65? - which I found absolutely fascinating.
I would read my paperbacks on the subways, at home in the evenings, during class - tucked in behind a text book or on my knee - even while walking, sometimes. I was a reading junky. Nothing has changed - like many - I love to escape. Paperbacks were like iPads of the time. Instant access to another realm. Admittedly only one at a time - but that one was usually deeply engrossing and most sufficient. I read voraciously. I loved reading and it really meant a lot to me. The quietness, the transportation, the magic of the whole process. Books were portals to other dimensions. It was a time when I wasn't magnificently happy in my life - due to struggles at school and at home. I was a deeply emotional kid, moody, stubborn, individualistic. I hated bullies and they hated me back even harder. I did not fulfil the expectations of my parents on an achievement level and felt out of place often. A quiet rage was building inside me, a rebellion. Many family dinners I would eat in complete silence as a protest to what I considered emotional oppression. Of course, I know now that my parents were doing their best with a not easy to define and contentious teen, but at the time I felt like it was me against the world. I refused to bend or acquiesce to asshole teachers and would often end up in detention or even be suspended from school (which was rare at that school, in those days). I was a little chubby, my hair was longer than permitted, I was unkempt (didn't give a shit) and refused to hustle in PE or ever go to swimming classes (self conscious). And though I did love a practical joke or shouting out funny things in class when I thought of them, I was never unkind or harmful to anyone. I was like a mini cheeky hippy - who probably would have been a goth - if they had been invited. I knew the dark side - having come close to death twice by the age of twelve - and endured more than my share of physical discomfort during my growing years. I also cried a lifetime worth of tears, alone, very alone, in my bedroom many nights.
But books, books; they were my friends. Books were all giving. They required nothing more than one's attention and in return they gave so much. I lived in paperbacks during the years from thirteen to sixteen. They cushioned the perceived harshness and confusion of my developing years. They were my teachers, my guides, they suggested wonderful alternatives. They presented glorious possibilities and mostly, too, tied things up neatly within their own worlds - which was comforting. They were unlimited - but contained. Finish one and I would crave the next. The quest was to find another at least as good - maybe better. I took it seriously. My addiction. My salvation. The simple paperback. Words on a page. They saved me. Soothed me. Unselfishly assisted in the creation of my complex and unique interior structures. Some of which are still sturdy and of assistance to this day. They were fundamental architects in the building of the launchpads for the rocket ships which catapulted my imagination into the limitless multiverse of timeless wonder. Like that last sentence? I can imagine it in a soppy compulsively readable paperback!