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What place does classic literature have in a multicultural world?

What place does classic literature have in a multicultural world?

Originally published on 20 July 2015.

Recently, I was curious to see if  my favourite books in English had been published in Japanese, across a range of genres, and wrote down the titles, authors, publication year, and ISBN numbers. Many of the books I’d chosen were classic Australian children’s stories, which included:

Most of these books have been around for decades, and are considered “children’s literature”. But while I enjoyed the stories as a child, and they are recognisably Australian, I suspect they no longer have the recognition that they used to. After all, they don’t reflect the lives of modern Australian children. I wonder who actually buys these books now, and if they will still be published 20 years from now.

Of course, I understand too that book publishing is a business. Books from other cultures or languages are unlikely to be published (or re-published) unless publishers think it would sell. And if such books no longer reflect their home culture, then how much interest is there likely to be in other cultures for them?

To satisfy my curiosity, I visited the Sydney store of the Japanese book retailing firm Kinokuniya. I went to the Japanese section service counter in the store, and spoke to Miss H. She was attentive, and took the list from me. I also asked if she had any ideas about other famous Japanese books she thought I should read. Miss H asked me when I needed the information, and I explained that I was in no hurry – if it took a month or longer, that was fine.

Well, maybe she had a quiet day, or was simply curious about the books I’d listed, but I received two emails from her in recent days answering my requests.

Both of the books that had been translated were American. One was from Lillian Jackson Braun’s “The Cat Who” series, which were written from 1966 through to 2006 ( The other was “Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond (,_Germs,_and_Steel).

Otherwise, though, it turned out that there was not much overlap between the two languages at all, and this fact got me thinking about all sorts of things.

In a digital world where the mass market for publishing is under pressure, does calling something “classic” or “literature” actually puts adults off buying such books for their children? I say this because while I read voraciously, I have not read many of the large books one is *supposed* to as an “educated” person. With the disappearance of formal manners has come a shift in attitudes as to what makes a person cultured - and indeed whether such a thing matters at all in some circles.

In high school, I remember being made to read some books that made little impression on me at the time. Pride and Prejudice really annoyed me when I was 16 or so; I remember thinking “why are we reading about upper-class English people from 200 years ago – what possible relevance does this have to me or anyone else now”? It wasn’t until I was older and I saw one of the TV adaptations that it caught my interest, which inspired me to read the book. I then understood the book’s genius as a comedy of manners, and understood that this was an eternal theme across many societies.

Is it because people did not enjoy reading such “classics” in high school that the very word literature brings back feelings of struggle, frustration and boredom? And as a result, does reading literature  feel to modern adults like yet another version of something we *should* do, like getting health checkups and eating our vegetables? 

On a broader scale, I imagine that it is likely similar things are happening in many nations, regardless of language.  For example, in the USA, are tales about Huckleberry Finn or Paul Bunyan being translated into Spanish? If they are, is it because they are “literature” taught in schools to various levels of competency, or is it because people still like the stories for their own sakes?

And to be fair to the Japanese publishers, I cannot say that there is much coverage of Japanese classics or literature over here in Australia either. I have read part of “The Tale of Genji” and Soseki Natsume’s “I am a Cat”, which I enjoyed. But these are certainly not readily available beyond specialist bookshops, or they need to be ordered in from overseas.

All of which makes me curious as to how publishers decide which books to translate from other languages. Modern Japanese authors who seem to have a following here in Australia include Banana Yoshimoto  and Haruki Murakami (others are here too:

Would it help mutual cultural understanding if people read both modern and older books from other cultures, rather than just the books considered to be “literature”? What would happen if some of these books were advertised and placed away from the “classic” and “literature” spaces, both physically and mentally? And could reading children's books be a useful starting point to learning about other cultures?

What do you think?

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