Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently stated that his consumption of a novel on Chinese cyber-tech paved the way to his heavy investments in Israel’s cyber sphere. Given Netanyahu’s power, statements like this demonstrate the immense influential potential of literature.

When thinking about this concept of the book as a vessel for ideology, I began to reflect on why there has been a surge in popularity for books about books. By this, I mean books set in bookstores, books set in libraries, books where the main character is a self-declared bookworm.

Titles such as ‘Days at the Morisaki Bookshop’ by Satoshi Yagisawa follows a depressed woman who finds refuge in her eccentric uncle’s bookstore, ‘Welcome To The Hyunam-Dong Bookshop’ by Hwang Bo-Reum depicts a woman’s journey from disillusionment with conventional success to embracing the philosophy of bookselling, ‘What You Are Looking For Is At The Library’ by Michiko Aoyama follows a librarian offering book recommendations to individuals struggling with various mundane problems. All of these stories share a common theme: the transformative power of narrative to lift oneself out of a mental rut.

In times of suffering, our greatest desire is to find an escape. The physical book offers us a tangible means to realise this aspiration, hence books about books tend to utilise spaces like bookstores and libraries as refuges in which one can begin to reassess their life. To be surrounded by examples of a controlled narrative is to be reminded of the possibility for narrative control in our own lives.

It is notable that Japanese and Korean authors seem to have garnered the most success in this genre. A clear undertone in metafictional literature is the boredom and exhaustion associated with an uninspiring career, especially when coupled with a relational breakdown. Japan’s unique word for work-related death, which encompasses afflictions such as strokes and heart attacks caused by long working hours as well as suicide, is karoshi (過労死). South Korea has a similarly work-centric culture, with the government attempting to raise the potential work week to 69 hours per week in 2021.

An epidemic of loneliness is said to be taking place in both countries. Japan and South Korea have an entire class of people known as hikikomori, those who have almost completely withdrawn from socialising. Japan’s government estimates that over half a million citizens between the ages of 15 and 39 are hikikomori. Individuals report that a key reason for their isolation is a failure to live up to expectations regarding school grades and career outcomes.

Books focused upon the day to day lives of ordinary people enable themes of meaninglessness to be captured in a particularly relatable manner. The Korean hit ‘Kim Ji-young, Born 1982’ by Cho Nam-ju and the Japanese bestseller ‘Breasts and Eggs’ by Mieko Kawakami are particularly pertinent examples of this. Whilst these novels act as existential diving boards for the question of finding meaning under capitalism, both authors are primarily focused on the issue of gender inequality, and so are not able to go as deep into the issue of disillusionment. Books about books, however, frequently attempt to tackle disillusionment head on.  

Ultimately, the book represents that which we can return to as a guide when we feel we have lost everything. Those grappling with meaninglessness can use narrative as a source of wisdom, as a hand both reaching out to hold you and point you towards the possibility of a different future. Metafictional literature reminds us that every book contains a story that someone believed was worth writing down, a story that someone believed could help another human being. Opting for a self-aware delivery of this message through a book in the readers own hands serves to emphasise its applicability to their own life.

There is certainly a refreshing power to this type of postmodernism. We must be aware of how the media we consume subtly influences our beliefs and actions, but once we possess this awareness, we can use it as a tool to guide ourselves towards new ways of thinking.