The Cat Who Saved Books is a story of books and reading, but also of family, friends and relationships—the things that make life worth living and as well as a comment on the state of the wider world. I was very excited to read this book (because—a cat and books) but was wondering what I’d make of it after reading a lot of mixed reviews. Overall, this turned out to be a book I rather enjoyed, but with a couple of elements that didn’t quite work the way I’d expected.
In The Cat Who Saved Books, we meet Rintaro Natsuki, a high-school student who is being brought up by his grandfather (his parents had separated, and then his mother died), who runs a second-hand book shop Natsuki books, which stocks not ‘popular’ titles or manga but books—‘that were far from the current trend, and many of which were out of print’. Rintaro is hikikomori (with reclusive/social-withdrawal tendencies), and gets even worse after his grandfather’s death, only staying in bookshop and not going to school. He is to move in with an aunt whom he has never met but is unable even to process his grandfather’s death, let alone prepare for the move. But despite his reclusiveness, he isn’t entirely friendless, for his senior from school, Akiba (in every way his opposite) who is a voracious reader and regular customer of Natsuki books takes an interest in him as does Sayo Yuzuki, Rintaro’s class president who brings him his homework everyday.
One day, as Rintaro is sitting in the shop, he has a visitor—an orange tabby named Tiger. Tiger enlists his help with resolving bookish labyrinths where different people are mistreating books in different ways—using them as they aren’t meant to be—and Rintaro must convince them otherwise. As Rintaro accompanies Tiger on these adventures, joined in later by Sayo, he begins to come out of his shell and understand himself, as also his grandfather and what he learnt from and shared with him.
This book as I said, has various threads or layers. One is of course books and reading—which explores aspects of not only their value but also how we can get the best from them (which isn’t by merely reading). In the labyrinths we meet different sorts—one who reads voraciously simply to ‘show’ how much he has read rather then bothering to really understand and pay attention to what he is reading, while others are distorting the books themselves, by making summarised versions, dumbing them down, eliminating anything that is unique about them just to enable people to keep with the ‘trends’ (reading is still fashionable) or read without making any effort:
…we eliminate all technical terms and jargon, unique or stylish phrases or expressions, or any rich and subtle terms. The style is free from individuality, expressions are kept to those in common usage—the passages are touched up to achieve the utmost plainness and simplicity.
In other words, robbing books of their true value and making them just another ‘commodity’ to be consumed. There are plenty of bookish references of course, mostly to Western literature but also the Japanese short story, ‘Run, Melos’.
Flowing from this look into our approaches to books and reading, are comments on society itself—the focus on show or appearance (on what you seem rather than what you are); superficial knowledge or information (everything bite-sized and summarised rather than involving any real effort, and relatedly understanding); fashions, fads and trends dictating everything we do; and of course, loss of or degradation in values:
In today’s world, a lot of what should be obvious has been turned upside down. The weak are used as stepping stones and those in need are taken advantage of. People get caught up in this pattern. No one calls for it to stop.
Of course, everyone is eager to assert their own uniqueness, but since everyone is equally obsessed with asserting it, then there’s nothing unique about anyone.
Its [empathy/compassion] a natural ability that everyone possesses. The problem is that most people have lost touch with that ability in the hustle and bustle of their daily lives.
Then of course, it is also Rintaro’s story—his reclusiveness, and disconnect with everything and everyone around him, other than his grandfather and the books themselves. We see how the adventures in the labyrinths enable him to gradually recognize his own abilities as well as the importance of the relationships one has in life, whether it is with friends or relations.
While I really liked the book overall, and the messages it was putting forward, I was surprised that I didn’t quite feel for nor was able to connect with Rintaro as much I had thought that I would (despite perhaps sharing some of his reclusive tendencies). Also, while I liked the cat, Tiger (I was expecting from so many reviews that I had read that he would be a rather nasty fellow, but he turned out not so bad at all; in fact I rather liked him), I wish he had had more of a role in the story.
So, a good read with a few minor complaints.
4.25 stars for this one.
Bookish coincidence: In a weird coincidence, one of the people in the labyrinth is missing The Horse and His Boy, from his Narnia set, the very book I can’t find in my set (I have it, I just can’t find where it’s gotten to).
This book of course qualifies for #JapaneseLitChallenge15
For other reviews of books with cats in them across genres and a books and cats catalogue, visit Keli Cat’s Book Corner