Vandalous Reading: Defacement and Commentarial Graffiti in Early Modern Japanese Books

By Dylan McGee.

Published by The International Journal of the Book

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

No cultural history of the book, in any country or period, would be complete without a documentary survey of inscriptions and other material traces left in books by readers. Drawing on over eight months of archival research in Japanese national and university libraries, this presentation highlights the most common patterns of inscriptive and tactile defacement found in eighteenth and nineteenth century Japanese books, including provocative examples of commentarial graffiti and messages exchanged between book borrowers. The value of this material for reconstructing local contexts of book circulation and shared discourse among communities of book borrowers cannot be overstated, nor can its value for uncovering common patterns of response and reception among readers in different cities and regions. Despite the recognized value of books as material objects, and the punitive consequences for anyone who was found to have defaced a book, many readers refused to be passive consumers of what they were reading, and took every opportunity to comment on characters or plot events, rub out the faces of villains, recontextualize scenes in pornographic circumstances, or add ludic dialogue. These embroiderings on the main text may be viewed as provocative challenges to the authorial closure of published works on one hand, and on the other, as instigations against the economics of book ownership and book borrowing. While the literary historical focus of this presentation will be on early modern Japan, the practical and theoretical questions it raises should create lively discussion among those working in various periods and disciplines.

Keywords: Book Graffiti, Japan, Reader Reception, Book Circulation

The International Journal of the Book, Volume 10, Issue 1, pp.81-91. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 761.635KB).

Dr. Dylan McGee

Assistant Professor, Japanese Studies, Graduate School of Languages and Cultures, Nagoya University, Nagoya, Japan

I teach early modern Japanese literature and cultural history at Nagoya University in Japan. Since earning my Ph.D. in comparative literature from Princeton University in 2009, I have published several articles and translations related to Japanese popular literature of the eighteenth century. Currently, I am writing a book about publishing, literary reception and literary celebrity in early modern Japan.


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