I must own over 1000 books, and these are only the ones I’ve kept from the many more thousands I’ve previously owned or borrowed or downloaded over the years. And of all of these books, the only one I re-read every 2 or 3 years is James Clavell’s ‘Shōgun’.
‘Shōgun’ is the ultimate immersive experience. Reading this book will transport you to a land and time that is alien, brutal, sensitive, sensual, cruel and utterly rational.
According to Henry D. Smith, academic expert on Japanese history and culture, (I’m quoting Wikipedia here), the book is “a virtual encyclopaedia of Japanese history and culture; somewhere among those half-million words, one can find a brief description of virtually everything one wanted to know about Japan”, and “[i]n sheer quantity, Shōgun has probably conveyed more information about Japan to more people than all the combined writings of scholars, journalists, and novelists since the Pacific War”. I read somewhere that all new recruits to the United States’s embassy in Tokyo are required to read ‘Shōgun’. If that isn’t true; it should be.
And ‘Shōgun’ isn’t the end of it. It is, in fact, the opening of Clavell’s ‘Asian Saga.’ In truth, this is a post-rationalisation stretch. There is a huge discontinuity before the next volume, ‘Tai Pan’, set in Hong Kong nearly 300 years later. ‘Tai Pan’ is equally brilliant at creating a long-lost world and it does benefit from logical sequels – ‘Gai Jin’, ‘Noble House’ and (less integrated), ‘King Rat’. The final volume, ‘Whirlwind’, while very good as a standalone book, has only a tenuous connection to what went before.
I know that the Nobel Prize is not awarded to dead authors, but I also know that Clavell would never have been in the frame, even while he was alive. And that points up the difference between stories and ‘literature’.
In my view, novels should be all about storytelling. Sitting around the fire and transporting your listeners (readers) to a different place, time, circumstance. And no one has ever done it better than James Clavell at his peak. As someone who tries to write stories set in another past time, I am in awe at how brilliantly Clavell succeeded.
Read ‘Shōgun’ and ‘Tai Pan’, and then the others. I promise you, you will not be disappointed. You will be enthralled and enriched.