Should Your Book Club Read The 1000 Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell?

This bursting-at-the-seams novel was the May selection for Literary Masters book groups.  It proved to be a polarizing choice.  Perhaps it’s the time of year; I, like many others, feel like my head is inside a Magi-mixer–and the switch is on!  Some members (myself included) loved the book, and others found it really hard going.  Everyone appreciated the opportunity to discuss it, though.  So, if you’re here for the bottom line, I would say: this is a book worth reading, and if you do read it, you’ll want to talk about it with others, so yes, your book club should read it!

Our groups talked about so many things, one main concern: what on earth is this novel about?  You’ve got the first plot–the Dutch on Dejima island in Japan at the turn of the nineteenth century, based on real events–and then there’s the second plot–the sisters and monks living in the mountaintop shrine.  And then the British frigate, again based on true events, arrives–almost a third plot–and helps tie everything together.  It’s an adventure story par excellence, and it’s also full of big ideas for your book club to explore.

We cover about twenty years–from 1799 until 1819 or thereabouts, yet all the major concerns of the century will be crammed in the story.  Science versus superstition, tradition versus modernity, West versus East, exploration versus exploitation, and much, much more.

Several overarching themes were discussed:

  • The idea of man being a complicated creature, a mix of both good and evil.  Are we just the sum of our deeds?  Is morality an absolute, or is it relative and dependent upon our culture?
  • The idea of life being a zero-sum game, and we are all just living by the law of the jungle.  It’s always all about power–who has it, who can grab it, how to use it.  Betrayal is pervasive throughout the story, which makes sense when it’s an eat or be eaten world. 
  • Stories, myths, and why we tell themAnd how they form who we are.  Whether we realize it or not.  Refer to page 244 for a great quote on this.
  • How we (often times blindly) hold onto a belief or ideology that justifies any and all of our actions.  How hard it is to let go of our beliefs because they form our identity and they give us power.  Refer to page 205 for a wonderful quote on this.
  • How very difficult it is to communicate, especially across cultural or other divides.  The power that an interpreter has, and the huge consequences that can arise from misinterpretation.
  • Imprisonment in a time of exploration.  Think about it–lots of the characters either chose their own prison or were put in one by someone else.

This book is bursting with metaphors, but one I loved was the birth at the beginning of the novel–a wonderfully symbolic scene.   And we all loved the language, especially the haiku-like ‘interruptions’–usually tied to nature–that underscored the action.  For example, when the villagers don’t want to know about what’s going on in the shrine on p.182, the line reads “She hears the ancient hush of falling snow,” and then later, when the truth is being uncovered on p. 236, the line reads “Someone sweeps snow in the courtyard with a stiff-bristled broom.”  How gorgeous is that?

There’s lots more to this book, but this ought to get you started with some ideas to discuss with your book club.  Happy reading!

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