A trip to Japan can never be complete without a visit to the many bookstores; especially those specializing in design and art. It doesn’t really matter whether you speak the language. Simply looking at the interior and decor of the bookstore, feeling the textures of different paper stock, and savoring the various designs of each book — it fills a missing piece of my heart.
Aside from the independent shops selling mostly new books, visiting traditional bookstores that specialize in second-hand books can also be quite an experience. Although I don’t know a word of Japanese, the literature sitting solemnly on the shelves seems to have magical powers that can keep me lingering in the aisles, immersing myself in the world of books. I can’t stop wondering: What if I could read Japanese? These bookstores would be paradise to me! I picture myself flipping through these books one by one in the order of the authors’ name. A journey of discovery awaits.
As you might expect from any bookstore, those in Japan are usually neat and tidy. But for some that have a certain character and uniqueness, their owners usually attempt to create a random sense of messiness; And they do look random to me, but not necessarily messy. I reckon they are not such experts in creating chaos after all.
Ordinary as they may seem, these bookstores are comparable to a book archival system. Name a book title or an author and you can instantly find what you are looking for. Thanks to the identical size of all the books, one can clearly view the book titles, authors’ names and publishers all-at-once on a horizontal plane, as if they are on the same wavelength conjuring a grand literary world.
As we all know, books in Japan are usually published in specific sizes. For example, tankōbon, which comes in B6 size with a measure of 128x182mm, is mostly used for hardcovers. Bunkobon, which is A6 in size with a measure of 105x148mm, are small pocket books that are extremely popular with readers throughout the country. Novels can be printed in both tankōbon and bunkobon formats, while comics and magazines each have their own sizing specifications. There may be some minor differences between each publishing house, but the general rules apply.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s in Hong Kong, some publishers such as SCMP Book and Ming Chuang took inspiration from Japan’s bunkobon and published pocket books that became big hits in the city. But the trend didn’t last long. These pocket books now sit alone on the shelves in the second-hand bookstores. On a lucky day, a kind visitor to the bookstore might place them together, creating an eye-catching troupe on the otherwise messy bookshelf. Written by the likes of middle-class writers, science-fiction authors and Japanese writers, these pocket books cover a wide range of topics from popular fiction, fashion news,and everyday knowledge. They are the epitome of Hong Kong’s blooming cultural scene in the 80s and 90s.
Speaking of the short-lived popularity of pocket books in Hong Kong, the lack of talented local writers is definitely a contributing factor. In addition, pocket books are in fact paperbacks in smaller sizes. They focus more on the content itself rather than the cover design and packaging, making it less appealing than those “normal” sized books with more stylish covers.
Personally, I hold the opposite opinion. In addition to the historical factors, pocket books have a size perfect for traveling. Holding the book in one hand is like embracing the text in your arms, giving rise to an urge to read. It is the perfect size that fits for any occasion. My genuine reflection on books is that if the content is good, it doesn’t really matter what the book cover looks like.