Outline by Takashi Atoda

September 19, 2011

It was just before nine on a Sunday morning. Twenty or so library-goers were sitting on a bench in front of the library entrance waiting for opening time. I’d recently moved into a house in the town and after hearing about the public library nearby I’d decided to stop by for the first time.

I used to visit the library a lot as a student. Those libraries of the past were dark, dingy places, but recently they’ve changed their appearance significantly. At the time I’d indulge myself in wide reading, borrowing books with little relation to my studies.

The library was due to open in about ten minutes. Feeling lethargic, I stretched out my spine and stopped myself from yawning.  

When I looked over there was a young man sitting down next to me. Black trousers and a blue sweater, maybe a high school student.  He looked like a typical geek, wearing glasses with his mouth tightly closed. He was studying English vocabulary, mumbling the words without really opening his mouth.

“Do you often come to the library?” I asked.

The young man was a little surprised, but nevertheless gave a speedy reply. “Yes. I almost always come on a Sunday. My house is small so I find it easier to study here.”

“Don’t you want to enjoy yourself on a Sunday?” Judging from the young man’s attitude he was a model student. It made me want to tease him a little, although I knew deep down that it wasn’t the mature thing to do.

“Of course I want to, but that won’t get me into a good university.” His logic was plain and simple.

The young man was holding four or five study-aid type books. It seemed he had no intention of borrowing anything, just using the library as a place to study.

I continued my questioning. “Do you students not read for pleasure?”

“Read for pleasure?” replied the young man, looking puzzled.

“I was just wondering if you read novels.”


“Yes, Like Soseki Natsume or Ryunosuke Akutagawa?”

“Ah. No I don’t read them. But I know all about them because I had to memorise them for my exam.”

I was a little confused. “Memorise them?”

The young man looked at me and proceeded to explain. “Soseki Natsume was a pioneer of modern literature. His notable works include ‘Botchan’, ‘Kokoro’, ‘Sanshiro’, ‘The Poppy’, ‘And Then’ and ‘Light and Darkness’. ‘Botchan’ is a humorous early work about a reckless Edo boy called Botchan who becomes a middle school teacher in a country town and gets involved in some unexpected events. ‘Kokoro’ is a late work which is an introspection of human greed, with running themes of love and friendship.” He sounded like a walking encyclopedia.

“And what about Ryunosuke Akutagawa?”

“Well he was a writer of short stories so there’s a lot of works. ‘The Nose’, ‘Yam Gruel’, ‘Hell Screen’, ‘In a Bamboo Grove’…”

“I see.” He certainly knew his stuff.

“Most of his works are folklore stories which took their themes from old Japanese tales. ‘The Nose’ is a story about a priest who gets laughed at for having a big nose. ‘Yam Gruel’, is a story about a man who thinks he wants to eat high quantities of yam gruel, but when he tries to eat a lot he loses hope. ‘Hell Screen’ is a story about a crazy artist who is told to draw a picture of hell by his lord and goes as far as killing his own daughter to do so. It is also an examination of the author’s devotion to his own work.”

“You’re pretty clued up, aren’t you? Even though you’ve never read these books.”

“Yes. I learnt it all at cram school. We chose two hundred famous works of Japanese literature and memorised the authors name, the literary characteristics and then the outline of the stories.”

“But there’s no point having novels if you only know the outlines.”

“I disagree. Going out of my way to read every bit of a long novel is a waste of time. If you know the outline, it’s the same as having read the book,” replied the young man, bounding with confidence.

This young man was certainly smart. Remembering in detail all the outlines of novels he’d never read is something I would never be able to do. But somehow I wasn’t quite satisfied.

“It does save time by just reading the outlines, but it’s not the same as reading the novel.”

“Well there’s no point in reading novels in the first place.”

“So doesn’t that mean that there’s no point in reading the outlines either.”

“But they appear on my Japanese test so I’ve no choice but to read them. If I know the outlines, it’s pretty much the same as having read the book.”

“And why are you so concerned about saving time?”

“So I have lots of time to spend studying other things.”

“And why do you want to study so hard?”

“I’m going to enter T University.”

“Why do you want to enter T University?” I persisted in my interrogation. I wasn’t teasing, merely examining the thought patterns of a young genius.

“I’ll enter the school of law, and then I’ll enter the Ministry of Finance.”

“Why do you want to enter the Ministry of Finance?”

“It’s the elite of society. Civil servants have stable lives, and with lifetime benefits they easily do better than workers in the private sector. They get good pensions and if you work for the Ministry of Finance you also have the chance for post-retirement re-employment.” I was somewhat surprised. The young man had a thorough, unobstructed view of his life to come.

“You have indeed made a clear outline of your life. So you really don’t need to go out of your way to live it out now, do you?”

When I came to my senses, it was still a few minutes before the library was due to open. I must have been sleeping. A smart looking young man was sitting beside me busily studying away.

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