Raised in the tumult of Japan’s industrial powerhouse, the 11 men and women profiled in A Different Kind of Luxury have all made the transition to sustainable, fulfilling lives. Based on Andy Couturier's popular articles in The Japan Times, this lushly designed volume has a wealth of stories about real people who have created an abundance of time for contemplation, connecting with the natural world, and contributing to their communities. In their success is a lesson for us all: live a life that matters. Read an excerpt of the book here or here. Read a review of the book here, here, or here.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Paper or Plastic?

Just recently, I made a bet.  A large, money bet.  I never bet, but I was very, very sure.  I made the bet with my dear friend Matt Stevens, the simultaneous interpreter from Japanese to English (who, by the way, helped to translate much of the difficult work of Masanori Oe in Chapter Eleven, and translate it brilliantly.)  The bet was for a thousand dollars.  (!)

It started this way.  Matt said to me, offhand, “Soon you’ll be reading all your books on a Kindle.” 

I said, “Oh, no.  Definitely I will not.”

Matt disagreed fervently, so I offered him a bet, and I made it big, to indicate I was serious.  And instead of five years, I gave him ten years.  I know I cannot lose this bet.  I will not be reading all of my books on a Kindle.
Nepali Papermaking Process
Woodblock by Akira Ito

Before we go on, let me ask you question: Do you feel like you A. Spend too little time looking at a screen?  B. Spend just the right amount of time looking at a screen?  C. Spend too much time looking at a screen?

Me, I’m in category C.  I bet most people reading this blog (Yes!  A blog on a screen!) would answer C. 

I could ask the same thing about paper or plastic.  Do you more enjoy holding paper in your hands or more enjoy holding plastic in your hands?

Aside from the feel of paper in our hands, (that alone should be enough) aside from the longevity of a volume on a shelf, aside from how many electronics we already have, if we really believe that this current system of energy use is "unsustainable", by a strict dictionary definition, and thus cannot and will not continue, do we really feel like "publishing" for an iPad or Kindle is something that will "live on"?  Do we feel it is more environmental?  Something that requires electricity to read?!  I mean, that’s absurd.  Haven’t we had enough nuclear disasters?  Coal disperses mercury.  Oil and gas require wars and drilling.

Handbound book on
Handmade paper from Nepal
Let me say it: Paper feels good.  Unless it burns or rots, it sticks around.  It does not need a power source, a server, or a credit card. You can make notes in the margin of your book.  You can turn down the corner of a page. You can make your own beautiful hand-bound book.  You can take a paperback to the beach.  You can go into any library and pick up a book printed *one hundred years ago* and just open it up and read it.  Sure you can look that book up on the internet and see and read those same words, if you can find it, but it’s not the book itself that was printed a hundred years ago.  Try these out in your mouth: “The rare book room.”  “The rare digital text downloaded from a server.”

What about the trees, though?  First of all, I’d say that if anything deserves the resources of this green earth to be used on it, it’s good writing, poetry, and splendid fiction.  That is after food and shelter, of course. (Although I know a man who lives outside, under a bridge.  But he is never without a book.  Last time I saw him he was reading Pliny the Elder.)  

Secondly, people are recycling paper.  Thirdly, trees grow and replenish.  Fourthly, I just got ten pads of paper today made from sugar cane.  If we really want to take the destruction of trees for paper seriously, let’s declare a WAR then on junk mail, let’s make our own published writing as beautiful and important as we possibly can, and let’s not give a red cent to publishers who print dumb books.

Then what about the convenience of downloading books?  The line usually goes: “All I have to do is want the book, and in seconds it’s in my hands!” 

All I can say to this is, “Do we really need even more instant gratification in this world?”  Has it made people any happier?

Ok, if you just want to check the weather, or find out what’s happening in the world political scene briefly, and you don’t want to buy a whole newspaper full of ads that you will just chuck in the recycling bin, then OK, check it online if you are one of the privileged people on the planet who have a computer and internet access.  But a fine literary magazine?  A book?  

It's true that some people read books like people eat potato chips, perhaps an electronic version is better in some sense. Or if you are just extracting information out of them, then perhaps you’ll want a Kindle, I really can’t say.  But I can’t imagine losing books, books on paper. One of the great joys of meeting a new friend is to go into their apartment and look at the books they have on their shelves.  What are they interested in?  Who is this person?

Here’s an excerpt from A Different Kind of Luxury.  It’s about a beautiful hand-made book, made on hand made paper from Nepal, by Akira Ito (please read more about this wonderful man in Chapter 6).

But of all the quite different works at the exhibition, the most moving for me was the smallest: a hand-sewn volume that fit into a box about the size of two packs of cards. The book, a loving documentation of traditional Nepali papermaking processes, displays Ito’s affection for the ways of life of traditional rural peoples.

See detail, below
“I made this,” he told me, “as a way to try to support their way of life at the time that industrially produced paper was coming into Nepal from factories in other parts of the world.

Akira Ito
The paper itself is baby soft, and so pleasing to the touch that I felt myself relaxing just holding it in my hands. In the gentle images on each page, I find women walking mountain pathways with straw baskets on their backs, while the trees, the river, the yaks, the clouds, and even the rocks of the mountain themselves vibrate with Ito’s energetic line. Nepali men in woolen caps harvest branches from saplings which, on another page, are soaked in a rushing river and then beaten against rocks. Like the meshed fibers of the supple paper, the people seem completely woven into the energy of the landscape.

In this book I can feel what Ito cherishes. The entire process of boiling and pounding the fibers, sieving the pulp in screens under a thatched roof, drying the individual sheets in the sun or by the fire, are rendered in such an intimate and inviting style.

Ito manages to have the book “say” (without saying) that in these mountain villages of Nepal, the daily life of the people, their artisanal craftwork, the specific local culture and the entire life-world are enmeshed into one single fabric.

As Ito says, “The good things of the past, that’s what we must preserve. They have passed through the hardships of history to become a tradition, and we who are alive today must treasure them, and take care of them for the future.”

Akira Ito with author Andy Couturier, showing
this book.

In a rare moment, Ito expresses some of his frustration with what's happening with this earth. “For the sake of money, and for the sake of ‘economic  activity,’ people try to change things, products, works of art—everything—as quickly as possible. To win at competition, everyone tries to make new things as quickly as possible. The acceleration of transportation, mass movement of merchandise, the forced cultivation of vegetables in all seasons, excessive lighting and air conditioning, and limitless information: the change is much too violent and intense. The human body and spirit cannot withstand this kind of acceleration. 
This is what I hate the most. For the sake of this changing, the world is being ruined. I don’t want to get involved in it. It’s better to be poor.” 

Akira Ito, craftsman
Here’s another excerpt from A Different Kind of Luxury.  It’s also about hand-made books but this time sewing together other people’s writings, by Mr. Osamu Nakamura (please read more about this wonderful man in Chapter 2). 

Nakamura shows me a number of books that he has bound by hand, and explains the Japanese method of sewing together the cloth-and-paper covers. I look at each of them and shake my head imagining how much time and care went into making them. Given how much labor they take, I realize that it is only possible to make a few copies of each, and that only a few people will ever see them. It seems a lot of effort for very little reward. But then I think that in contrast to a book published by machines in a factory, the simple potency and beauty of a hand-sewn book gives the reader pleasure of an entirely different order.

Osamu Nakamura with a handmade book on handmade paper
One of the books Nakamura has bound comprises a few photocopied pages on how to weave sandals from rice straw. Spending time with Nakamura, I see that the process of making something like straw sandals or a handmade book cultivates humility while connecting us with something fundamental about our humanity: the interaction between the remarkable capacity of our own human hands and the ingenuity of our minds.

Now, picking up the book on how to make sandals from straw, its pages only photocopies, I understand that through his binding them in a cover of black and red Nepali cloth, they have become something of beauty where something functional would easily have done.

As Nakamura says, “Making things with one’s own hands cultivates a generosity and openness of heart.”


  1. "some people read books like they eat potato chips..."

    " for the sake of money, for the sake of economic activity...To win at competition, everyone tries to make new things as quickly as
    Wow, life as a pleasure-less binge.

  2. Thank you for posting images of Ito's drawing.

    My partner and I read a few pages of ADKOL to each other every afternoon or so, savouring the many layers and allowing ample time for reflection.
    We are following Ito's journey just now and the drawings add to the dimension of "Drawing is a way of reasoning on paper".
    Now to print them out and bind them into this wonderful book!

  3. Wow! Cool, binding these INTO the existing book. That's what Ito did, rescuing the mass produced and making it "handmade" again!