A (Nearly) Complete Survey of the Works of Alan Booth

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Favorite authors can sometimes deliver a lot more than just a great book or series.

That was certainly true with a favorite of mine: British travel writer Alan Booth, author of the celebrated books The Roads to Sata and Looking for the Lost.  

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Alan Booth

To critics and fans alike, both books are regarded as classics of English language travel literature, as well as unique and evocative meditations on Japan and her people. To me, though, they represent something a bit different: the start of a 20 year-long scavenger hunt for the author’s more minor books, and also the inspiration for a journey of my own that’s only just about to begin.

It’s certainly true that in his heyday Alan Booth was respected by his peers in Japan, and his writing was highly-regarded by his fans (as well as his “rivals” in Japan). But even at the height of his fame, he was not exactly a household name.  The world had not yet evolved into the hyper-connected cacophony it is today, and back then, even an author as gifted as Booth could labor for a decade or more in the (then) relatively niche market of Japan and remain largely unknown to the wider world.  As such, besides the two books mentioned above, little of Alan Booth’s other writing was ever seen outside the English-speaking readership of the Asahi Evening News or a few specialty magazines.

As for his minor books, Booth’s tragic death at the age of only 46 virtually guaranteed their obscurity by ensuring there would be no follow-up.  Finding these books has proven to be a bit more of a challenge than I expected, and for a reason that has little to do with their author dying young or publishing in a minor market.

One very unfortunate reason was that no fewer than two other and quite distinct Alan Booths published at the same time as Alan Booth the travel writer: one a distinguished professor of sociology at Penn State, and the other a professor of economics at the University of Exeter.

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Confusion, it's what's for dinner...

Both professors authored a number of scholarly books and papers that were inevitably swept up by the internet’s unthinking robo-aggregators and search engines and mixed with the comparatively less voluminous output of Alan Booth, the travel writer. One consequence of this indiscriminate mixing was a disorganized and muddled mess of search results at some of the internet’s best used book sites –results that confusingly conflated the work of three different men.

While no doubt confusing for all concerned, I suggest it was Booth the travel writer whose fans who got the shortest end of this stick.  Sifting through pages of irrelevance and uncertainty can’t have made the task of finding his “next” book any easier for the average reader.

Hopefully, this inaugural blog post can go some way toward clarifying the situation.

I first encountered Alan’ Booth’s writing by accident in 1993 as a language student — a copy of The Roads to Sata had been abandoned in the closet of my first Japanese apartment by its previous tenant, the English teacher who I was replacing.  I didn’t actually read it until I had already left Japan maybe a year later, in the grip of an acute spell of reverse culture shock and nostalgia.  I crunched through it in a long winter evening that would see my literary horizon greatly broadened and my sense of what constituted “adventure” altered forever.

As with with all books we love, when that last page inevitably came, I turned it with sadness, longing for more.  Thankfully, I dimly recalled the introductory blurb on the book’s inside cover (the sort of thing I usually ignored on a first reading), and looked again.

With that, I now had another book title to seek out– named, in black and white.  But it was not to be.  Not for good long while, at least.  To make a long story short, nothing turned up anywhere.  For years. I struck out everywhere I looked… local bookstores, local libaries, even the University of Minnesota’s general research library on the West Bank turned up nothing besides a copy of “Sata”.  Clearly this would take more time. If I’d known then how much more, I might well have given up.

I won’t bore you with the rest, except to say that for years, everywhere I looked I came up empty, and leads were thin on the ground.  So much for Booth having “written extensively” I thought to myself…until a few years later (maybe 1998?), when I finally hit paydirt — againalmost by accident.

I’d been fooling around with the newly upgraded search terminals at the downtown Minneapolis Barnes & Noble, and ran a search against “Booth, Alan” out of habit. The results I got back contained quite a surprise: in addition to the various editions of “Sata”, it turned out there was actually one copy of a Booth book I’d never heard of before — Looking for the Lost — in stock, hidden away.  It was a happy day, although Devils, Gods and Cameramen was still missing in action.  No matter, I had new Booth to read.

My elation didn’t last long.  Flipping the book over to read the back revealed that Booth been dead this entire time — without my even knowing.  He had in fact died only a few months before I’d arrived in Japan in 1993, and found that discarded old book of his back in 1993.  What a depressing thought.

But I don’t stay depressed for long, and since that day, tracking down Booth’s relatively unknown works has become something of a hobby of mine, a crusade even. I’ve been at it now for about 20 years, and am fairly certain I’ve found just about everything there is to find.  So as a public service, I present my findings here.

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Alan Booth and Timothy Harris

I will also provide what I believe is the first concrete detail on the upcoming publication of the long-awaited anthology of uncollected and unpublished writings, compiled and edited by Alan’s good friend, Timothy Harris.  

Tim very kindly spent a few hours with me one recent afternoon, and we discussed the anthology and a great many other things over cold glasses of Asahi.  Without giving too much away, I want to do what little I can to build some enthusiasm for this important book, which I see as a loving gesture of his enduring friendship for Alan, as well as an expression of great respect for Alan’s many fans.

From what I’ve seen, these fans will be very pleased with the resulting book.  And with that having been said, let’s begin the survey.

Survey Contents / Quick Links:

  1. A Book of English Oaths, Insults, and Obscenties (1977)
  2. A Journey through Japan (1979)
  3. Devils, Gods and Cameramen (1982)
  4. The Roads to Sata (1985)
  5. Japan: A Complete Guide/Land of Many Faces/etc. (1988~1991)
  6. Shakespeare’s MacBeth: Retold by Alan Booth (1993)
  7. Looking for the Lost – Journeys Through a Vanishing Japan (1995)
  8. This Great Stage of Fools – An Alan Booth Anthology (awaiting publication)

1. A Book of English Oaths, Insults, and Obscenities (1977)

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Considering Booth’s skill as a writer and his evident love of poetry and The Canon, it was a bit of a surprise to discover that his first published book was not something more predictable, such as a book of his own poems, but was instead a rather amusingly comprehensive encyclopedia and dictionary of English curse words, insults, schoolboy toilet humor, and randy poetry.

Knowing what I know now, though, this probably isn’t as out of character for Booth as I might have first thought.

Intended, one must assume, for a rather advanced Japanese learner of British English, the book’s ostensible title in English is A Book of English Oaths, Insults, and Obscenities, although its real title is the much more flippant The Ministry of Education’s Specially Non-Certified Book of English Sermons, and in Japanese: 「文部省特別検定英語聖語読本」.

I can only wonder about the degree of push-back the publisher must have given in response to the suggestion that a government ministry be named in a not-very-subtle gag on the books’s cover.

Overall, the book has the unmistakable looks and feel of a labor of love, of something ruminated on, pored over and massaged until it had reached a stage of ludicrous perfection; it oozes what Jacob Bronowski would have called the “happy passion” of its author.

Once the shock of the book’s impropriety wears off, one can’t help but be impressed by its scope, detail, and completeness.  Despite the book’s modest size, it is a surprisingly dense affair, clocking in at 337 pages of rather small print (including its absurdly complete index which, as an example, lists the word “fuck” as populating pages I, II, III, 6-22, 23, 24, 26, 33, 41, 44, 49, 50, 51, 55, 57, 63, 72, 94, 106, 146, 167, 168, 183,247, 285, 294, 297, 301, 305 and 313.  And all of this, course, excludes any of the illustrious effenheimer’s many permutations, all of which are listed separately, such as fuck-about, fuck-all, fuck-off… you get the idea), and includes numerous flourishes and little extras that a lesser author would have no doubt have omitted without much guilt.

Structurally, the book relies upon all the standard devices of more staid language textbooks: example sentences, gender difference tables, fill-in-the-blanks quizzes, (with the ridiculous “correct” answers provided near the back) and all the rest. It’s also quite goofily illustrated throughout, which helps keep the mood appropriately light.

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"Prick... James Prick..."

Overall though, despite the passion and the good-natured fun that’s in evidence everywhere, I think this piece of Booth’s past is of mostly historical interest only. English sensibilities, if not always their slang, have moved on quite a bit during the last 40 years, and little of this book is likely to be of any actual use nowadays to Japanese speakers. Besides, if someone like me can’t be bothered to actually read much of this, I rather doubt anyone else would bother.

For me, this little gem simply helped to humanize its author in a way his more famous works never could, by revealing something of his personality and mindset while he was still in his late twenties, and still almost a complete unknown. For that insight, I’ll always be grateful to the dear friend who very unexpectedly put this crazy little book into my hands.

Availability: uncommon; As of June 2017 Amazon.co.jp and Rakuten each have a few copies for sale.

2. A Journey Through Japan (1979)

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As with the previous book, I found A Journey Through Japan to be an unexpected surprise.

Not only did this account of Booth’s epic 1977 walk through Japan predate The Roads to Sata by almost 6 years , but it did so in a highly abbreviated and simplified style that suggested concerns other than the artistic or the literary inspired its publication.

It was almost as if CliffsNotes had gotten hold of the manuscript for The Roads to Sata and done their thing to it well before it ever got to the printer.  Which probably isn’t that far from the truth. Booth’s Wikipedia page states that he worked for the MacMillian Press in Tokyo, and as it turns out, A Journey Through Japan was published by “MacMillian Publishers, Ltd.

While this is proof of nothing, it does suggest any number of plausible scenarios. Perhaps Booth pulled a few strings at work, or maybe he owed someone a favor.  A theory I like is the possibility that a work colleague had, perhaps over a few beers, heard of his epic walk and the resulting manuscript-in-progress and, for his own reasons, was able to convince Booth to re-work that manuscript into a simpler format that would be congruent with the product aims of MacMillian: specifically the so-called “Ranger” series of “readers” aimed at the educational market.

If you flip the book over and examine its back cover, the first thing you’ll likely notice is that it doesn’t mention the book’s contents at all.  Instead (literally from the first word) it begins hawking the “Ranger” series of “readers” with photos of other titles such as “I Spy” and “Princess Moonlight”, explaining that:

"Rangers are an illustrated series of graded readers at eight levels.
The series includes specially written stories, adaptions of novels
and folk tales, documentary narratives and informative texts."

The lower right corner confirms this book’s “Ranger rank” at “vocabulary load at level 5, 1850 words,” and once you open the book and actually read a bit, this pronouncement is quickly confirmed. Every fifth line is numbered in the margin, and the language used throughout is noticeably simple.  It’s also rather well-illustrated, with either a relevant photo or a surprisingly detailed map on every other page, no doubt in place to help retain the focus of young, wandering minds.

The narrative itself isn’t half bad, and reads as one would expect, as a highly simplified draft of “Sata.”  Even the chapter names are the same (or rather, the five that appear are), which suggests to me that the literary skeleton of Booth’s narrative had formed much earlier than I’d originally thought considering the seven and a half years between his walk and the first printed editions of “Sata” hitting store shelves.

So in short we’ve got an educational book targeting late elementary or junior high school level readers, in the form of a highly simplified but better-illustrated preview edition of The Roads to Sata. 

Nice…but is there anything truly new or interesting inside?  In fact, there is.

In my case, this books’s small differences with “Sata” proved to be of immense assistance on a few strategic occasions while I was performing a detailed analysis of Booth’s original 1977 route and schedule through Japan (in preparation for my own journey following in his footsteps, a topic for another post).

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Map on page 16

The first thing I found helpful was the book’s many maps.  Not only are there more of them compared to “Sata”, but they are more detailed, and actually match specific place names with specific dates — something the maps in “Sata” don’t do at all.

The narrative text, as well, contains a few random lines here and there that proved invaluable in accounting for Booth’s whereabouts or disposition on a handful of (presumed rest/hangover recovery) days that he chose to entirely omit from the “Sata” narrative — a habit of his that I came to find quite exasperating at times.  Thanks to this little book, I was able to fill in some troubling schedule and route gaps that wouldn’t have been possible to document otherwise had I been forced to rely exclusively on the text of “Sata”.

All told, this is an interesting piece of history, although like the previous book, there isn’t much here at all for the average reader.

Availability: rare; as of June 2017, only Amazon.com appears to have a single copy available for ~$29, a price that, in my view, greatly exceeds its true value to all but the most die-hard collector.

3. Devils, Gods, and Cameramen (1982)

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For many years I considered this book to be the Holy Grail of the Alan Booth collector.  It was in fact so difficult to obtain that once I had secured my copy (literally, a photocopy), my first inclination was to scan it to PDF and make it freely available to everyone.  (I’m glad I didn’t follow through with that, though, because this book won’t remain out most people’s reach for much longer)

No doubt a blow by blow account of where and when I looked would be about as interesting as a reading of the phone book, so I shall spare you that. Suffice it to say that with a single exception, the very few copies I did manage to locate were sequestered in national or university libraries in foreign (mostly Commonwealth) countries, all of which were understandably unwilling to loan their items to random internet people.  At one point I did toy with the idea of heading to Australia to obtain a copy, but it was difficult to justify the cost or the time away from work just then.

That one exception I mentioned, though, happily turned out to be local: a copy was apparently being kept at the the Tokyo branch library of The Japan Foundation, located in Yotsuya, Tokyo, at the time within easy walking distance from where I was living.   A bit of checking revealed that the library was open to the public, so there I went.  Within just a few moments of my arrival, the very helpful staff had fetched the book from the closed stacks and handed it to me (although as a non-member I wasn’t allowed to leave the premises with it).  And with a sense of satisfaction not unlike that gotten from cresting a mountain after a hard hike up, I gratefully took my long-sought prize and sat down to examine it.

My first impression of the book, a svelte paperback containing 86 pages of actual text and a fair number photos, was as I had originally hoped: the foreword was pure, classic Booth:  “Of the ten festivals I have described here, I loved four, hated two, and have mixed feelings about the others.”  Love and hate — excellent raw materials.

And it was excellent. I’ll leave it at that, except to say that Booth’s feelings about any given festival did, in my view, somewhat affect the quality of his writing at that moment.  The festivals he loved quite obviously benefited from the considerable care he took to describe their beauty and uniqueness, whereas the more commercial affairs are treated breezily and do suffer at times in comparison for that reason.  But no essay is poor (they ran serially in the Asahi Evening News, after all), and are accompanied by photographs, some surprisingly good, which were apparently taken by Booth himself.

Mystifyingly (or rather, sadly as it turns out), this collection of essays was not marketed to an English-speaking readership, but again, as a textbook to Japanese learners of English.  (For those keeping score, this makes a hat trick).  As with the previous book, every fifth line of text is numbered, with those numbers referencing a substantial explanatory index written almost entirely in Japanese, by the publishers.

The inevitable result of this poor marketing decision is that the book simply “didn’t sell” according to Tim Harris, which is a travesty considering its quality.  While this does help explain its being difficult to obtain, the book does occasionally crop up in the odd scholarly citation here and there, so it seems a few copies at least were put to some good use. But there is little doubt this beautiful work has yet to receive it’s due from the reading public.

For me, it’s been well worth the long wait, and was precisely the book I had hoped it would be back on that sad evening when I first read its title in 1994.

Availability: extremely rare, at least for ownable/personal copies — although the less picky can with certainty read or xerox the above-mentioned Japan Foundation copy.  For those unable to travel and/or those who want to read something from the book right now, Koe Magazine several years ago reprinted, courtesy of Tim Harris, what is arguably the book’s single best essay: Snow Devils.

(As for the remaining essays, after 35 long years they are finally due to be widely released, later this year or early next year, courtesy of good old Tim Harris again, who has included them in his upcoming anthology of Booth’s uncollected and unpublished work. More on that act of literary justice, below.)

4. The Roads to Sata (1985)

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Of all the books in this list, The Roads to Sata is the one that really requires no introduction; This is the book that put Alan Booth on the map with both the critics and the public; in my view it’s easily as good as anything by Oliver Statler or Donald Richie.

A book so highly regarded needn’t suffer any artless “review” of mine here (besides, I’ll have plenty to say about the book over the next four months — stay tuned).  I think it’s enough to simply say that this book assumes an unnumbered place among my “five favorite books of all time” and that its influence upon my life has been larger than most.  If you’re interested in Japan at all and haven’t yet read it, you really do owe it to yourself to do so soon.  (The Open Library has a PDF copy that anybody can check out for two weeks after registering as a free member, so poverty at least cannot be used as an excuse for not trying on the first few pages for size)

Since my first reading “Sata” in 1994, my interest in Booth and his journeys has only increased, having now grown to such an extent that in a few days I will actually be departing on my own long-planned re-tracing of his route; Just as Booth did in his last book, Looking for the Lost, I will be walking the same route he did in 1977, on the same days he did, beginning June 29th of this year — 40 years to the day since he began his journey from Cape Sata.   No doubt much has changed since then, but whatever the case, I intend to bear witness.

I’ve probably read the book five or six times over the past 23 years, but it was the most recent reading this year that proved to be the most interesting.  During that reading, I made the effort to break his journey down into a detailed day-by-day summary spreadsheet, with the intention of winnowing out every last useful detail from the text that I thought might help me or make my own journey more interesting, and also to help me to trace Booth’s (sometimes, poorly-documented) path through the Japanese countryside more precisely.

This effort naturally led to a number of fascinating (and/or worrisome) discoveries, as well as to some surprises, frustrations, and genuine mysteries — all of which I will detail in future posts.

Bottom line is this, though: read The Roads to Sata if you haven’t yet.  Not everyone will love it, of that I am absolutely sure; Alan seems to have been a sensitive chap, and was a little too thin-skinned for his own good at times. But sensitive, sympathetic types undoubtedly make the best poets, and when he’s not carping about some transient foible of those around him, or bitching about the weather, his deft and artful use of language can effortlessly transport you to the place he’s writing about.  Besides that, this book is very accessible, dryly witty, heartfelt, motivating, and ridiculously informative.

It’s a classic for a reason.

Availability: Still in print, I believe, and if not there enough copies available for everyone — some very cheap — or in the case of the Open Library, entirely free.

5. Japan: A Complete Guide/Land of Many Faces (1988)

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Japan: A Complete Guide was the first of Booth’s “minor” works that I came across, and for that reason I enjoyed it a great deal — perhaps beyond what could nowadays be justified based its actual merits as a travel guide.

In its design and form factor, its overall look and feel, it seems as though its publishers intended for it to compete with more typical books in the travel genre.  It has that look: lots of glossy full-color photos, the strategic use of bold text to denote locations, and the like.  But that’s not really what it is, and anyone who bought this book expecting that it was could have been disappointed.

Looking more closely at the actual contents reveals that this book is actually a subjective and intentionally incomplete survey of the main regions of Japan and the places and events unique to those regions that make them worth a visitor’s time.  What this book actually is, in essence, is the distillation of the aesthetic: “Alan Booth the Tour Guide” and the entire book is more enjoyable, and makes more sense, if you think of it that way.

Entire categories of information, such as specific details of lodging, dining, and even transport, are almost entirely omitted, whereas things you would rarely or never see in more traditional guides are included, such as an index of historical figures mentioned in the text, or a variety of insightful sub-sections on topics like Japanese theater, music, religion, and festivals.

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All told, this is an interesting and very well-written work, but one that I suspect also failed to sell well on account of way it was (most probably) marketed.  As evidence to support this suspicion, I note here that the basic 1988 manuscript seems to have been released under several different names and by several different publishers, over a period of just a few years. While I can’t be completely sure, that can’t be a good sign.

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Besides the title above, I’ve found this same basic work called “Japan: Land of Myth and Legend” as well as “Japan: An Introduction“.  In some cases, these other titles are referred to as the “updated second edition.”

Of course, I have not personally checked each and every extant version of this work myself; even someone like me has to draw the line somewhere, and I concede that it’s entirely possible that, say, Japan A Complete Guide and Japan: An Introduction, separated as they are by two or three years, may not be identical in every respect. But I have little doubt that all the above books are based, more or less, on the same core manuscript.

That having been said, my own personal view is that this book serves best, and retains its relevance today, not as a 30 year old travel guide, but as a companion edition to The Roads to Sata, to be read together with that book because I strongly suspect (for reasons that will be obvious to readers of both books) that they’re both based substantially on the same field notes. Reading the guide in stages, in the order that Booth himself experienced the country in “Sata” (i.e., start with Hokkaido on page 214, then move to Tohoku on page 113, etc.) is a synergistic approach that I think amplifies the best aspects of each book quite a bit and makes for a unique and very educational experience.

Avaiability: fairly common. Although long out of print, copies of some version of this book are available in many places, including a free PDF copy at Open Library.

6. Shakespeare’s Macbeth: Retold by Alan Booth (1993)

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The last page of my edition of Looking For the Lost contains, as do many books, a short biography of the author.  Near the end of the first sentence on the page, it is claimed that that, “…by the age of ten, [Alan] had already read most of Shakespeare’s works.”

For a long time I wasn’t sure what to make of this; I can still recall very clearly what I was interested in when I was ten, and it sure as hell wasn’t Shakespeare.

To be fair, I just assumed this sentence was a piece of sentimental posthumous exaggeration, perhaps the sort of thing a lit major might say about himself half in jest while out drinking with friends.  I certainly didn’t take it literally, nor even very seriously.  But since then I’ve rethought my initial cynical skepticism.

The main reason I changed my mind was due to the insight I gained as a consequence of my meeting with Tim Harris, Booth’s close friend and a gentleman whose aura of erudition and obvious fluency in things literary left me deeply impressed. The stories he told of his times with Alan helped to quietly transform any lingering skepticism of mine into something more akin to understanding (rather than mere belief) in a single afternoon.

Tim also related to me the same basic “Shakespeare story” as found in the back of Looking for the Lost, only in his version the young Booth completed his Bardic education at the age of fourteen, rather than ten — an altogether different (and far more believable) claim.

The other factor that changed my mind, though, was this little book, Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Retold by Alan Booth).  To the the casual (or cynical) observer, this slight paperback is nothing more than an abstractly illustrated digest of Shakespeare’s “MacBeth” re-written in simple English and ended with an explanatory index in Japanese.  Pretty basic stuff.

But if one looks at the whole of Booth’s work, and with his friend Tim’s help, the less-public details of his life, it’s impossible not to see this book as an expression of Booth’s deep desire to share his understanding and love of Shakespeare with others, particularly Japanese learners of English.

Whatever it’s merits as a faithful representation of “The Scottish Play” (it does gain points for artistic merit in dispensing with those pesky line numbers every five sentences, I’ll say that much), it seems obvious to me that understanding Shakespeare well enough to even attempt a recast of a major work of Western literature for a non-native readership necessarily requites a command of the source material that few posses, as well as a confidence (or chutzpah?) in ones’ own skill to do the job properly.

Both of these things strongly suggest Shakespeare was a lifetime passion for Booth.  And if you consider that even the most optimistic sales scenario for this book would probably have resulted in the publisher moving at most a couple thousand copies, it’s plain to see that Booth was motivated by passion for the material and, dare I speculate, a love of teaching (this is, after all, his fourth book targeting English learners).

The sad coda to this story is that the book’s first printing was on May 15th, 1993…three and a half months after Booth’s death on January 23rd, making it the first of Booth’s titles to be published posthumously.

Availabilityuncommon, but Amazon.co.jp as of June 2017 has a few copies available.

7. Looking for the Lost (1994)

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While The Roads to Sata put Alan Booth on the literary map, it is Looking for the Lost that is unquestionably his magnum opus, and I expect most people who’ve read both would agree with that.

Conceptually and structurally, Looking for the Lost is both more complex and more interesting than The Roads to Sata.  It’s also much more introspective and personal, with Booth deliberately probing and reflecting upon his motivations, reasons, and regrets with far more more clarity and humility than I think is typical in his other work (or to be more fair, all the work I’ve seen to date), and I think going in that direction helped him stretch his legs in a sense.  As good as his writing was in the early 80’s, the approach Booth took in this book gave him the canvas and the colors to demonstrate how much his writing had improved in the years since The Roads to Sata went to press.

Looking for the Lost is actually so much better in so many small and varied ways that one can’t help but wonder what sort of books Booth would be writing for us today if he could.  I lament the absence of a book Alan specifically mentioned that he intended to write — a book on Japanese hot springs.

This fine book also has the sad distinction of being the second of Alan’s books to be published posthumously.

Avaialbility: Almost certainly still in print and is available everywhere, and even if it weren’t in print copies abound at low prices.

8. This Great Stage of Fools – An Alan Booth Anthology 

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About a year ago I ran across a (now-defunct) blog called Muzuhashi. The page that Google served up — the author’s summary of Booth’s better-known writing— was certainly enjoyable enough on its own, but in the comments below the post were the sort of tidbit that you’re lucky to find in one out of a thousand searches.

The discussion included details of the an upcoming Alan Booth anthology of collected and unpublished work. Participants in that discussion included not only the editor/compiler of the book, Tim Harris, but also the book’s publisher (Ry Beville) as well, and included and a few other random folks whose name I had run across during other searches, including David Boehm, co-administrator of the “Alan Booth Appreciation” Facebook page.  It was quite a gathering, and the result was a very interesting discussion that included some encouraging specifics of the book’s publication date and the like.

But there was an obvious problem with all this: all those dates that were “coming soon” or “later this year” were at least a year in the past, and no anthology was yet in evidence anywhere despite much looking.  My search was conducted May’ish of 2017, and so with no sign of this anthology anywhere and my own 4-month walk across Japan scheduled to begin at the end of June, I decided to reach out to Tim Harris immediately.

To make a long story short, Tim was happy to meet, and brought me fully up to date on the anthology and its contents, as well as its very interesting title, a line taken from King Lear. He accounted for the the year and a half since the “Muzuhashi” discussion by explaining that the publisher had been sidetracked by various issues, including an illness, but that he reiterated to Tim his interest in publishing the book.  “I think it’s definitely coming out in the autumn” (of 2017) Tim told me, with a possible publication party tentatively scheduled for September at a prestigious Tokyo location that shall remain unnamed until it’s confirmed.

As to the contents, I will below paraphrase (perhaps butcher may be more accurate) the key takeaways from the powerful and fascinatingly detailed foreword Tim wrote for the anthology.  The bold text in quotes are Tim’s own words, while the text in parentheses are my comments.

The anthology will include:

  • Alan’s writings on film between the years 1979 and 1990…” (divided into various categories, best, worst, various genres, etc.)
  • A series of charming articles about Japanese festivals. Some of them were printed as an English-language textbook…” (note: this is Devils, Gods and Cameramen described above, which was originally printed containing ten essays.  The anthology edition will contain fourteen!)
  • [Alan’s] long piece on Takahashi Chikuzan, the great performer on the tsugaru samisen who was born in Aomori Prefecture….”
  • An account of [Alan’s] walk across the island of Shikoku…”
  • Nine pieces on Japanese folk-songs and their places of origin…”
  • The final articles that he wrote for Tokyo Journal and the Asahi Evening News, which have to do with his struggle with cancer…”

No doubt compiling this anthology has been a great deal of work for Tim, tracking down old, physical copies of magazines and newspapers, and rescuing everything from the clutches of time.

Availability: Awaiting publication by Bright Wave media.  A specific date has not yet been announced as far as I know, but it would seem a publication date in early 2018 is very much in the cards.  I’ll keep chasing up with Ry Beville and Tim Harris and will post anything I find out below.


January 2018 Update:

I recently asked Ry Beville for an update on the book’s publication status.  He advised that Bright Wave Media would be receiving the book’s pre-production proofs from the printer in early February, with an initial run to begin shortly thereafter.  More updates to follow soon!

April 2018 Update:

Tim Harris very kindly sent me a copy of the anthology’s pre-production proofs, which I am nearly done reading, with a full review to follow.  I don’t yet have a firm date for the book’s release, although I’m told mid-May we should start seeing it.  As indicated above, the title will indeed be “This Great Stage of Fools”, and we have an ISBN number to search against (ISBN 9780989916318), although at this point it’s still undefined.

In late May there will be a book release party in Tokyo that Tim has organized — I’ll be pulling photography duty and will do a write-up when it’s over.  Tim has indicated that anyone who’s a fan of Alan’s writing is welcome to attend, so if you’re interested either hit him up directly, or let me know.

May 2018 Update:

We now have an official press release by Bright Wave Media, stating the anthology will be officially available on the 25th of May in Japan (while preorders will ship on the 23rd of May), the same day as the book release party, whicch is open to the public!


12 thoughts on “A (Nearly) Complete Survey of the Works of Alan Booth

  1. Hello there

    Allow me to introduce myself: I am the anonymous author behind the Muzuhashi blog, and was just writing to say a) thank you for reading and b) thank you for this fascinating post about Alan Booth.

    I was particularly impressed with the fact that you have managed to track down so many of Booth’s more obscure works (not to mention amazed that it is still possible to buy some of them). As it happens, my father was a secondhand bookseller and my mother a librarian, so I know a lot about sifting through dusty shelves of old books, although I assume that over the years, your quest for Booth collectibles came to involve more in the way of internet than physical searches.

    I am also thoroughly in awe of your journey to retrace ‘The Roads to Sata’, and am now following you on Twitter. The very best of luck to you, and I shall look forward to reading more of this blog upon your return.

    All the best,
    Muzuhashi (actually feel free to call me Tom – I’m not too fussed about being shrouded in mystery any more!)

  2. Awesome! Book purchased. Thank you a million for compiling this amazing anthology. I’ve been a Booth fan for a million years so I couldn’t believe my luck to log on today and find that this had been released less than a month ago!

    1. Hey Rufus — you know you’re cooking with gas when a “coincidence” like that happens. Thanks for dropping by. Hopefully we can get a few more bits of interest to you and others posted before too much more time passes…

      take care, je

  3. In his Birmingham days Alan was a published poet: indeed he won the Birmingham Post Annual Poetry Prize in the late 1960s and published frequently in a University of Birmingham magazine ‘Mermaid’. He also ‘translated’ Racine’s Phèdre in a typical Alan way: I have this image of him still, sat in a dressing room behind the stage at the Birmingham Guild Theatre, with half a dozen published translations of the play in front of him, teasing out his version of what he wanted his actors to say. I know when he first went to Japan. he worked for Macmillan and I think he might have written some English Language teaching material published by Macmillan. All traceable, no doubt, by a keen researcher with time on his/her hands.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Martin. Sorry I haven’t reached out, as I mentioned I would earlier. Been a busy year at work. I do know (as I’ve been told) that there is great community interest in seeking out back issues of the ‘Mermaid’ and or uncovering some of Alan’s old student poetry and drama. I’m very hopeful we might be able to catch up before too long and see if that’s a project that we might be able breathe a little life into. I have no doubt there are fans and admirers from all over the world who would be able to help…

      Till then, thanks again for the comment! Speak to you before too long, je

  4. It is always a pleasure to find someone who has discovered Alan’s wonderful travel writing (it’s still much too select a group) – and many times more so, to come across the kind of labour of love you have undertaken!

    I was lucky enough to get to know Alan in the 1970s, and much of what little I understand of Japan, emotionally as well as intellectually, I owe to him. Vivid memories, over forty years later, include drinking and singing folk songs (both Japanese and British) on blankets in a suburban Tokyo park on a warm spring day, with regulars from his favourite sake bar, while cherry blossom opened almost perceptibly in the trees above us; being introduced at that same bar to room temperature sake drunk from a cedar wood box (Alan, I think, was drinking beer…); and huddling in midwinter round a kotatsu stove at a house owned by his first wife’s family, on the lower slopes of a volcano.

    I can clarify one or two points in your really useful summary of his published writing. In the second half of the 70s I was working for the English as a Foreign Language section of Macmillan (NB no capital M in the middle, and no second i – sorry, I’m an editor by training!), travelling regularly to Japan from my base first in Singapore and later in Hong Kong; I once calculated that I have spent over a year in Japan, though I have never lived there! I think it was Yoshi Tadokoro, then running the Macmillan Japan office, who introduced me to Alan.

    You are in fact almost right about the origins of A Journey Through Japan. Rangers were a series of simplified readers for learners of English, and I was looking for
    additional titles with an Asian background. I managed to persuade Alan to write about his epic journey for the series, and he produced one of the very few books of that kind which truly transcend the limitations of a restricted vocabulary. Indeed, some passages found their way almost unchanged into The Roads to Sata. I’m sure he did see the reader as a way of working out material to include in the subsequent book.

    Did you know The Roads to Sata was in the Penguin Travel Library for a while? That put him where he belongs: in the company of writers like Wilfred Thesiger and Eric Newby. No longer though, it appears (I wonder who made that decision). Interestingly, Penguin Random House do seem to publicise the Kodansha edition, which thankfully *is* still in print; but that still puts it in a kind of ‘books about Japan’ ghetto; Alan deserves better than that as, to quote Ian Buruma, ‘not only the best travel writer on Japan, but one of the best travel writers in the English language’.

    I am delighted to hear about This Great Stage of Fools (another labour of love, clearly!), and will try to order a copy from the publisher. I wish I’d heard in time about the launch; I’d have tried very hard to be there. (I enjoyed the video, though!)

    Finally, congratulations on completing your own ‘journey through Japan’! I’d be fascinated to have your overall impression of what had changed, and what had not, over the
    past forty years.

    1. Hi Richard — I’m not even sure where to begin. Comments like yours are beyond anything I expected or even realistically hoped to solicit back when I started this site. Thank you for taking the time.

      So much to comment on, ask about, and respond to. I will reach out via mail to you later, but for the benefit of other readers I wanted to say a few things.

      First, since writing my survery I’ve had the good fortune (through Tim Harris) to come across two additional books authored by Alan. They are, in fact, so witty and deep despite their ostensibly purpose (English teaching/learning) that I have hesitated to amend this survey and have considered writing an updated addendum. I tend overthink things, but will get details of these hilarious and intensely witty little tomes before long. Beyond that, though, the insight you have provided about Macmillan and the background of the “Ranger” readers is invaluable. Thank you.

      I actually own a Penguin edition paperback. It essentially disintegrated during my own tramp across the country. I will definitely have more to say on this topic, before too much longer. A book would be fantastic, but I’m not sure that’s the medium for me. I have two videos planned, and for certain, a number of blog posts, perhaps serial in nature. A book might require literary chops I don’t have the conceit to imagine myself as having. Perhaps I’m too modest, self-critical, or perhaps I detect in myself a terrible habit of having leaned to artlessly ape Alan’s writing style. It’s actually a little embarrassing, when I step back and look at my own field notes. I feel a little more comfortable working with images and sounds. But the written word has such power. I guess time will tell. Comments like yours and others here do, at times, forced me to reconsider my reluctance to write about my travels…

      Please, order This Great Stage of Fools. Tim has put together such a moving and balanced anthology… without any exaggeration, it’s the book I waited 25 years to read after I turned that last page of “Sata” back in 1995, I believe it was. It hits all the notes, covers all the bases, and answers all the really important questions. It’s clear Alan was on the cusp of branching out, beyond Japan, beyond all of our expectations, probably. His writing about Calcutta took my breath away. You will love the book and will probably be able to appreciate it in a manner few of us ever could. Please read it.

      Talk soon sir, thank you again for the comment!
      je

  5. Mark me another fellow Booth-reader to be very grateful for this remarkable collection. I identify with many of the sentiments here, from reading “The Roads to Sata” more times in the last fifteen years than I can count on one hand, to spending quite a bit of time searching for this handful of “lost” titles, without much success. I’m still holding out hope that I might find a copy of “A Journey Through Japan” one day. In the meantime, I’m excited to learn about the publication of “This Great Stage of Fools,” quite an apt Booth title, and especially to read the account of his journey across Shikoku, so noticeably absent from the rest of his travels.

    Thank you very much for this fantastic information about one of my favorite books and it author. Parting thought: following your own pilgrimage in Booth’s wake, perhaps you should write a similar account. There’s a lot to be explored, whether detailing your own adventure, comparing it to Booth’s, or any narrative. I think you’d have a guaranteed reader here.

    Thanks again!

    1. I’m sure we can “work something” (wink, wink) out if you’re unable to procure a “legit” copy of any of these books, save for those still in print, of course. ^_^

      You need to read This Great Stage of Fools. Full stop. Do not pass Go. Being composed of so many shorter essays on so many different topics, it actually fits rather well into modern life, in a way Alan’s other books don’t, really, without one making the time for them to fit.

      There is so much to recommend within the anthology’s pages, but in particular, Alan’s masterful (and often absurd) film reviews have made trips my local video rental store (yes, they *still* have those in Japan, “Tsutaya” they’re called) that much more rewarding and compelling, as of late. Neither you nor I will probably live to see Japan’s complete film catalog on a streaming service anywhere, so we have to make do with hunting down physical discs in random shops here in Japan. But whatever the case, I highly doubt there will ever be a more amusing, rewarding, diverse, or well-written survey of films as those that Tim Harris included in this anthology.

      Honestly, the film reviews are worth the price of the book alone, and there’s so much more to be found…it’s a treasure. Enjoy it, please.

      As with Mr. Slessor below, thank you for nudging me in the direction of writing about my travels. Sentiments such as yours are worth a lot to me, and I mean that. I’m giving the whole effort some serious thought at the moment. Not a book, per se, but definitely a serial series of essays on this blog. It’s about time, eh?

      Thanks again for the comment.
      je

      1. How excellent to hear you’re considering writing about your travels, Hushashi-san. I would certainly be interested in learning about your adventures, however they are available, and however you choose to publish them. The written word has power, and accompanied with sounds and images, could be quite magical.

        “This Great Stage of Fools” arrives today! I ordered it straightaway upon learning about it here, and I can’t wait to dive into it. Again, how wonderful is your collection here, and what a service to we who admire Booth’s unique voice. It’s going to be a real pleasure to read these previously unavailable or rare works, and I’ll definitely return here to visit the community that you’ve already established.

        Yes, I will continue to look for a copy of “A Journey Through Japan,” but (nudge-nudge), assistance would always be welcome.

        For only a little bit of a non sequitur, “Sata” has inspired me for many years to try to make a musical accompaniment to the book, to attempt to “score” it, as if it were a film. Maybe this is a foolish venture, potentially to tarnish a phenomenal work with a gesture of well-meaning-but-unequal artistry, but Booth’s language in many parts speaks to my musician’s brain, and the idea still looms large in the back of my mind. Regardless, as far as things here are concerned, I am grateful for your legwork, candor, and accessibility. Here’s to you, Booth-san, and all his friends and fans. Kampai!

        1. I’m quite keen to listen to what you’ve done, musically speaking… do you have it posted anywhere like Soundcloud or Bandcamp? Regardless, I’ll hit you up via mail soon. I’m now snowed under with mails I must write… Last night was Tim Harris’ “Book Break” speaking engagement at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Japan, where he talked about This Great Stage of Fools and working with Alan, among other things. A full house turned up to listen, and I now owe nearly a dozen people that I met there e-mails. Another incredible event. So, I’ll just add your name (and Mr. Slessor, above) to the list of folks I need to write to, and soon. Such a nice problem to have. ^_^

          Talk soon!
          je

  6. I’ve uploaded some clippings from the Birmingham Post (1968): a short review of Alan’s Hamlet with some interesting bio info and a couple of poems of his that helped win him the Birmingham Post Prize. Still working on ‘Mermaid’, but living a long way from Birmingham. Hard to accept how young Alan was in 1968, and how much he’s achieved. Check http://eayrs.com/downloads/Bham_Post/Alan_Booth/

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