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Big in Japan: Polya’s How to Solve it

December 26, 2011

35904114621045938In a memorable post on 2011 in the Japanese book industry, Néojaponisme (Matt Treyvaud) mentions that a big seller this year was the 1975 Japanese translation of George Polya’s mathematics book How to Solve It.  I had trouble believe it at first.  I read this book (in English!) when I was a kid, but it is fairly dated these days; and it seems unlikely to become a best-seller based on a 36 year old translation. 

Nonetheless, Néojaponisme is undoubtedly correct:

Rank of How to Solve It on Amazon.com:  #13,612

Rank of  いかにして問題をとくか on Amazon.jp:  #380

girlmath girlsI have to wonder if this is a spin-off of the recent math boom in Japanese books (as typified by the unexpectedly strong sales of the math romance series 数学ガール(the first volume has been translated into English as Math Girls.)  The premise that math is a good way to for high school boys to find romance seems rather tendentious, but it is enough to propel Hiroshi Yuki through four novels and three comic books.

Here is a memorable quote from Néojaponisme’s post on technology and books:

Was the New Yorker‘s story on keitai shōsetsu (mobile phone novels) really published in 2008? It feels like only yesterday that commentators were either hailing or denouncing the arrival of a new genre — Shōnagon-meets-Chikamatsu, crowd-sourced to a million young women on commuter trains. Where is our god now? (Spoiler: On Twitter.)

While tempting to give the iPhone credit for the fall of the mobile phone novel, clamshell cellphones and carefully managed sub-internets are far from dead in Japan. Despite what was generally perceived as a rocky start in the Japanese market, however, it’s hard to deny that the iPhone is an influential presence here now too. The app-ification of everything is putting serious pressure on 1999-vintage online services, and why labor over yet another tale of high-school agony when you have dozens of Twitter followers waiting to hear about the much more involving topic of yourself? It’s probably too early to declare keitai novels dead altogether — they still have their own section at most bookstores — but they have certainly lost their luster, as has the cousin genre of “manga essays.”

So what were people reading instead? Well, Twitter.

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