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Tackling the world's oldest novel, 'Tale of Genji'


Last week, a group of dedicated readers launched a summer-long online reading group for the what is often called the world's first novel, "Tale of Genji." Written (probably) by the Japanese noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu around the beginning of the 11th century, the book follows the love affairs and political fortunes of a prince in the Japanese court of the Heian period.

The online reading group follows in the tradition of Infinite Summer, the 2009 online group read of David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest." Like "Infinite Jest," "Tale of Genji" is a huge book, so taking a summer to read it seems like a good idea.

The organizers are two online journals: Open Letters Monthly and the Quarterly Conversation, each of which pays special attention to work in translation. They're recommending Royall Tyler's translation of "Tale of Genji" -- partly for its footnotes and partly for its poetic prose. Like this:

He struggled in vain to control himself, despite his resolve to betray no strong emotion. A rush of memories even brought back the days when he had first known his love, and he was shocked to realize how long he had already been without her, when once he had so disliked her briefest absence.

The benefit of the online reading group is that even if no one nearby has time to tackle Genji, there's a community waiting on the Web. Those who will be writing up comments about Genji include scholars and readers from Washington D.C. and New York, Chicago and Halifax, Canada.

The first posts touch on storytelling, sex, crime and penmanship -- apparently, in the Heian period, a well-wrought letter was a means of seduction. The group is reading about 90 pages a week, so there's still time to catch up with the Genji summer.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: A participant in a rice-planting ceremony in Osaka, Japan on June 14, 2010, is dressed in clothing of the Heian Period (794-1192), when Tale of Genji was written. Credit: Tomofumi Nakano / EPA 

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Those interested in "The Tale of Genji" should read "The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan" by Ivan Morris. It clarifies a number of concepts that would otherwise be incomprehensible to the western mind.

Its sole similarity to "Infinite Jest" being its thickness. Oh, and both authors are no more. I'd say "Genji" is far more readable.

I read Genji in college for a Japanese literature class. The book is a look into the psyche of Japanese culture and sheds light on the roots of Japanese culture.


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