Hojoki: Visions of a Torn World (SBP Monthly Special)
Updated: Jun 16, 2020
We’re introducing a series of YouTube videos where we can talk about our books and even get the chance to talk with some our authors and colleagues. I hope you’ll subscribe and watch when you get a chance.
To kick off the series we will be giving away ebook copies of Hojoki: Visions of a Torn World by Kamo No Chomei. Scroll to the bottom to get your copy.
We are doing this at a time of great change and anxiety in our culture. We’ve been sheltering in place for over two months now due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s unclear when things will get back to normal. And “normal” probably won’t be normal.
We are also now in middle of widespread protests and outrage over the murder of George Floyd. This has sparked anger but also the call for a much more enlightened and positive attitude to policing, and an admission that racism is systemic in our culture. As publishers we’ve always been seekers of different voices, but we are painfully aware that our own industry lacks diversity, particularly in the areas of curation (editors) and content (authors).
I hope we will take this opportunity to be much more mindful of what we do, and to seek out new voices and provide new opportunities to serve the generations of readers in the future.
Hard for me to believe, but we’ve been around 30 years. Usually our books just go out into the shops and into the hands of readers, and I never get a chance to talk about why we published a particular book or any background on its editorial or design or authors what place it has in our hearts. So that what we’re going to start doing here.
And today I want to talk about a book we published some 24 years ago. That is pretty early on in our existence and it’s still in print. Which is kind of remarkable.
The book is Hojoki. I’m choosing it because of its theme, which you may be able to figure out in part from its subtitle, Visions of a Torn World. Because our world too is now ‘torn’ first with the COVID pandemic and now with the challenges to our society that have again resurfaced as a result of the George Floyd murder in Minneapolis. We are stressed, surrounded by sickness in our loved ones and a sense of certainty that our social institutions too are morbidly unhealthy.
Now this subtitle was added by the translators, Yasuhiko Moriguchi and David Jenkins, both poets and translators living in Kyoto at the time. The ‘torn world’ for Kamo no Chomei was a world of uncertainty, chaos, and natural calamity that existed in Kyoto back in the 1100s, a thousand years ago.
Kamo-no-Chomei was the son of distinguished family of Shinto priests. He eventually embraced Buddhism, which may have precipitated a falling-out with his father. In his alter years, Chomei, who had been living in Kyoto, the capital city, left it to build himself a small hut measuring only ten-feet square, the ‘hojo’ of the title.
From his tiny hut, Chomei reflected back on the various events that had befallen Kyoto and the destruction and unhappiness and misery that had caused its citizens. Their world was ‘torn,’ and Chomei reflected on how their abrupt loss of possessions and of the lives of their loved ones had led them to sorrow. Buddhism on the other hand offered an escape from suffering through detachment, lack of desire.
Here’s a typical passage, showing the wonderful poetic qualities that the translators have brought to the work, definitely one of the reasons we ended up publishing their work:
Men of means
have much to fear.
Those with none
know only bitterness.
If you entrust yourself
to the care of others
you will be owned by them.
If you care for others
you will be enslaved
by your own solicitude.
If you conform to the world
it will bind you hand and foot.
If you do not, then
it will think you mad.
And so the question,
where should we live?
Where to find
a place to rest a while?
And how bring
even short-lived peace to our hearts?
But at the end there is a surprise, because Chomei is finding himself a bit too attached to his own detachment, which perhaps strikes as an astonishingly modern kind of self-awareness.
The entire book, included the preface, is a very short read, maybe 40 minutes. It is much more satisfying to read the verse section out loud, where you can hear the cadence, and slow down to grasp the imagery.
Talking about images, the book includes brushwork by Michael Hofmann, an American artist living in Kyoto at the time but who has since returned to the states.
And one more thing about the design. It has a tall thin look, and this was driven by the fact that the text largely consists of very short lines of verse. Had we made the book conventionally wide we would have had to make the text a lot larger to avoid visual imbalance on the page. With a thinner book we get to stage the verse better, and this also enabled us to use a fairly small typeface, which in turn forced us to use more spacious leading in the prose introduction.
One of the Bay Area’s most distinguished cover designers, Dave Bullen, at the time a neighbor too, did the cover, again using art by Michael Hofmann.
We are going to be offering free copies of the eBook edition of Hojoki for a limited period of time. And we hope you’ll grab a copy and use it to guide you through your own thoughts and feelings as you deal with the uncertainty of the moment.
Make sure to grab your free eBook copy below. The giveaway will run from Monday, June 15th to Monday, June 22nd.