Unusual Review Format Sparks Manga Readers to Turn to Books

©Yuki Shikawa / Ichijinsha
The cover of the first volume of “Bernard-jo Iwaku”

Should reading a manga be considered the same as reading a book?

At first, this may seem like a relatively straightforward question, but actually, it’s a bit complicated. When I was growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, I read hundreds of manga but no one ever said I was an avid reader. Adults would often scold me and say, “Stop reading manga and start reading an actual book.”

Recently, however, the winds have changed. Various studies have shown that children who read a lot of manga also tend to read a lot of other books. On the other hand, whenever surveys are conducted about how many books a person reads per month, it often includes a stipulation to exclude manga and magazines.

At least manga does not hinder reading. There are manga masterpieces that review other books and novels, including this week’s manga. This manga makes a person want to read the recommended book more than if they were to read a standard book review.

The protagonist of the manga “Bernard-jo Iwaku” (Miss Bernard said.) is high school student Sawako Machida. She doesn’t actually like to read but likes to appear to be an avid reader. She’s always in the school library and spends her free time coming up with ideas on how she can make it look like she read a book, without having to actually read it. Regular visitors to the library include her classmates who actually enjoy reading: cynical genius boy Endo, bibliophile girl Hasegawa and sci-fi nerd girl Kanbayashi. As Sawako tries to find the easy way out, her classmates call her out on her laziness.

The title of this manga comes from the alias that Sawako uses for herself, apparently taken from George Bernard Shaw. When she asks her classmates to call her by her alias, Miss Bernard (pronounced “Banado-jo”), they instead use a shortened version and call her “Do-jo” (Miss Do).

“Bernard-jo Iwaku” starts off as a comedy manga that references famous quotes from various well-known books. It was quite entertaining in itself, but as we slowly start learning more about the characters, it turns into a beautiful drama about friendship that revolves around books and literature.

I had never heard of some of the books that were mentioned in the manga, such as “Ice” by British writer Anna Kavan or “Il deserto dei Tartari” (The Tartar Steppe) by Italian novelist Dino Buzzati. The books are so brilliantly introduced that it really made me want to get my hands on actual copies.

“But then I thought to myself, I get a stronger desire to read something when I see my friends having fun talking about it, compared to reading a book review, no matter how well it’s written.” This quote by Hasegawa is striking and memorable, and it expresses exactly what the author is trying to get across in the manga.

Do-jo has her own peculiarities and would never read digests of literary masterpieces. She would say, “Reading those things would never give you a real reading experience.” It is surprising to hear such a sound argument coming from her. In this sense, “Bernard-jo” is a pretty hardcore manga about reading literature.

When talking about reading, people often refer to “On Reading and Books,” by German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. The main idea of this famous essay is, “You will become stupid if you read too many popular books. Try not to read them.” I’m embarrassed to say that I did not know this until I read “Bernard-jo.”

Do-jo, you are absolutely correct. I think just by reading this manga series, it will be worth a hundred ordinary books.

— Kanta Ishida, Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Writer