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Article Art & Design Culture Lifestyle - 05.08.2019

Between the Pages | Book Curation as an Art

Between the Pages: Book Curation as an Art
© JAPAN HOUSE Los Angeles

In February, a California library scholar named Erin Glass posted a tweet that read: “what if public libraries were open late every night and we could engage in public life there instead of having to choose between drinking at the bar and domestic isolation.” Her humorous yet heartfelt question quickly received over 200,000 likes, and indicated the fervent emotions people have for libraries. In fact, libraries are having a bit of a moment in the sun. From Glass's tweet, to renowned New Yorker writer Susan Orlean's recent bestseller “The Library Book,” it’s clear that a library – or any space devoted to books and reading - will always be more than the sum of what’s on its shelves.

Book culture in Japan has been thriving since the introduction of the printing press, with a massive publishing boom in the post-War era resulting in not only one of the world’s highest literacy rates, but a passionate public of readers. All formats and genres of books and periodicals can be found, including local innovations like “bunkobon,” special pocket-sized books designed for ease of reading by subway commuters, and the “mook,” a type of glossy magazine-book hybrid often focused on fashion or lifestyle. Many Japanese photographers start their career by publishing their work in collectible, limited-edition monographs, which has influenced fine art photography worldwide. Despite the rise of digital books and tablet readers, physical paper books are still widespread – as well as the physical spaces that sell and share them.

A city like Tokyo is filled with bookshops, ranging from well-organized chains like Aoyama Book Center, to the bustling stalls of Jimbocho, an entire city district devoted to second-hand books, not to mention libraries, schools, book-centric cafes and more experimental reading spaces. It’s the fertile ground for a niche profession – book curation – to take root.

Yoshitaka Haba is one of these pioneers. Haba, curator of the JAPAN HOUSE Library, got his start in the clean shelves of the Aoyama Book Center, but always had a larger vision of how to connect books and people. He realized that the endless array of books on offer in a huge chain store – let alone the online sea of Amazon – could be overwhelming to customers. Perhaps less could be more. The human touch of a curator thoughtfully selecting a few books, in careful relation to one another, is what was missing. (For those who would like to read about the perspective on Japanese concept of space or “ma,” see our article here.)

He soon founded BACH, a platform to curate books for a wide variety of spaces but always with the same bespoke, eccentric approach. To date, Haba has designed libraries and book programs for department stores and schools, hospitals and film studios – even the Kyoto City Zoo. At the zoo, Haba’s book selections were tailored to the needs of the employees as a place for them to rest and recharge. They could find animal-themed manga, bento lunchbox cookbooks, pub guides, and books on relieving stress and back pain.

BACH’s tagline is “Out of all the books that exist in the world, this is the place you find what you want.” This notion of discovery and serendipity is key, and present in the artistic, idiosyncratic way Haba selects books. He crosses genres and styles, combining on one shelf an art book, a novel, and a vintage travel guide that might all have the same theme. This is the guiding principle behind the libraries he created for all three locations of JAPAN HOUSE – a thread that puts books in conversation, but with a spark of surprise. As Susan Orlean put it in her tribute to libraries, “I had forgotten what it felt like to amble among the library shelves, finding the book I was looking for but also seeing who its neighbors were, noticing their peculiar concordance, and following an idea as it was handed off from one book to the next, like a game of telephone.” Through BACH, Haba is continuing that game of telephone in spaces around Japan and the world.


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© JAPAN HOUSE Los Angeles

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