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  • Judging a Book by Its Cover:Natsume Sōseki, Book Design, and the Value of Art
  • Pedro Thiago Ramos Bassoe (bio)

In a letter to English scholar Nakagawa Yoshitarō written in 1905, Natsume Sōseki states that he wishes to create a book version of his serialized novel I Am a Cat (Wagahai wa neko de aru, 1905-6), no matter the cost. "I don't care if it's too expensive and doesn't sell," he writes, "I've simply told the publisher to make it magnificent."1 Throughout his career, Sōseki contributed to the design of his own books, providing input on the production of everything from the cover to the box and from the title page to the printer's mark. Sōseki's longest collaboration in book design was with Hashiguchi Goyō, an artist whose portfolio included exhibition painting, woodblock printing, and commercial design.2 Both Sōseki and Goyō were heavily involved in the material aspects of printing and publishing books, a process by which they aimed to transform the literary object into a three-dimensional work of art.3 By selecting luxurious materials for the presentation of his publications, Sōseki indicated that literature was something to be treated with care and discerning taste. Toward the end of his career, Sōseki became increasingly concerned with the visual expression of his work, as he personally funded and designed his novel Kokoro (1914) while studying painting under Tsuda Seifū, the designer of his last two books. With each project, Sōseki treated book design as a medium that expressed the value of literature, in artistic and material terms, by means of the physical presentation of the work.

The first volume of Sōseki's I Am a Cat went on to become legendary as the fountainhead of luxury book design in Japanese literature (fig. 12.1).4 The volume was designed by Goyō with an illustrated jacket, a vellum cover, a title written in stylized seal script and printed in gold leaf, a symmetrical design of two cats printed in vermillion ink, an illustrated title page, an illustrated publisher's mark (for the joint publication by Ōkura and Hattori presses), and a colophon with an Art Nouveau border in the back of the book.5 Most famously, it featured golden-gilt top edges and uncut paper that required [End Page 159] the reader to use a pen knife to separate pages while reading. Far from sitting back and letting Goyō make all of the creative decisions, Sōseki was actively involved in the process of his book's design at almost every step. In a letter to Goyō dated August 9, 1905, he writes, "My apologies for last night. In regard to the cover that I requested at the time, I have decided upon thick, light yellow torinoko paper, with something done in lacquer and gold. I look forward to your completing this request. With haste…."6 From the very beginning of his career then, Sōseki demonstrated that he was seriously concerned with the look and feel of his books, as he supervised matters ranging from the thickness and quality of paper to the type of ink to be used on the cover.

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I Am a Cat, volume one (Wagahai wa neko de aru, 1905), book cover. Designed by Hashiguchi Goyō. Published by Ōkura and Hattori Presses. Courtesy of the C.V. Starr East Asian Library, University of California, Berkeley.

Sōseki appears to have first become interested in book design during his stay in England from 1900 to 1903, where he encountered the Arts and Crafts movement and Art Nouveau, two aesthetic philosophies that treated the book and other common objects as works of art. While in England, Sōseki acquired a copy of The Earthly Paradise (1868-70), a heavily illustrated collection of the poetry of William Morris, the central figure of the Arts and Crafts movement.7 Morris sought through his movement to reintegrate art into daily life by emphasizing craftsmanship in the production of goods, including tapestries, tiles, windows, and books. After studying medieval calligraphy and illumination, he founded the...


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