Matt Forney
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Three Must-Read Works of Fiction

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This is a guest post by Tim.

Mojo (of The Neckbeard Chronicles) recently posted that you should focus your reading on non-fiction books. I agree, for the most part.  I’ve only read two books of fiction since January 2011 and have probably read more, and better, books than I had in the previous two years.

Here are three exceptions to the idea that books of fiction are “alluring but useless.”

Consider them work on your inner game and ideas of personal strategy.

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Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa

Called the Gone with the Wind of the Far East. I’ve heard that many Japanese read this book before WWII and it helped inspire them in their cause.

This is an excellent book of historical fiction; it was based on real people and events whose history was fictionalized in order to have a more entertaining story.

Miyamoto Musashi was one of Japan’s greatest swordsmen. From the Wikipedia entry on one of his most dramatic experiences:

Musashi challenged Yoshioka Seijūrō, master of the Yoshioka School, to a duel. Seijūrō accepted, and they agreed to a duel outside Rendaiji in Rakuhoku, in the northern part of Kyoto on 8 March 1604. Musashi arrived late, greatly irritating Seijūrō. They faced off, and Musashi struck a single blow, per their agreement. This blow struck Seijūrō on the left shoulder, knocking him out, and crippling his left arm. He apparently passed on the headship of the school to his equally accomplished brother, Yoshioka Denshichirō, who promptly challenged Musashi for revenge. The duel took place in Kyoto outside a temple, Sanjūsangen-dō. Denshichirō wielded a staff reinforced with steel rings (or possibly with a ball-and-chain attached), while Musashi arrived late a second time. Musashi disarmed Denshichirō and defeated him. This second victory outraged the Yoshioka family, whose head was now the 12-year old Yoshioka Matashichiro. They assembled a force of archers, musketeers and swordsmen, and challenged Musashi to a duel outside Kyoto, near Ichijō-ji Temple. Musashi broke his previous habit of arriving late, and came to the temple hours early. Hidden, Musashi assaulted the force, killing Matashichiro, and escaping while being attacked by dozens of his victim’s supporters. To escape and fight off his opponents he was forced to draw his second sword and defend himself with a sword in each hand. This was the beginning of his niten’ichi sword style. With the death of Matashichiro, this branch of the Yoshioka School was destroyed.

Wikipedia even notes that the place where Musashi fought the Yoshioka school is still marked more than 400 years later.

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It’s a book well worth reading, not only for the entertainment value, but also for the evolution and forming of Musashi’s character.  There are also many moments of very interesting strategy.

The Book of Five Rings is his book on strategy. I found it less interesting and helpful than Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.

The Samurai Trilogy is not bad but deviates a bit from the book, and I hear that a different version of the story is the movie that the Japanese prefer.

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Taiko by Eiji Yoshikawa

Somewhere around my third favorite book is Taiko.  People who are not me will prefer Musashi because of the latter’s more action packed story.  But I really enjoy the strategy and life story of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (the Taiko).

Toyotomi Hideyoshi is regarded as one of the five greatest Japanese figures of all time, and thanks largely to this book, he is among my three personal heroes.

He is remembered for rising from nothing to conquering all of Japan. He did this during a time when people did not change their station in life.

The book is exceptional, and full of examples of military and life strategy laid out in the form of a novel. I maintain, however, that although I prefer Taiko to Musashi, you would prefer to read Musashi.

Eiji Yoshikawa’s third book, The Heike Story, does not compare to the other two books.

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Jian by Eric van Lustbader

Jian is my favorite book of straight fiction.

This author has written many novels based in the far east. Shan is the sequel of Jian and is a poor imitation. If you’re interested in the junk-type novels, I would recommend all of Eric van Lustbader’s books. They are much better than your average junk novel.  You might even acquire the same great interest in the Far East that I have. Mojo seems to be quite a fan of the girls. (My interest is more in the culture and differences with the West rather than any particular preference with East Asian girls.)

One reason this book is great is because of its nonlinear layout. Rather than have the story told sequencially, this book, and many of van Lustbader’s, rearranges the story line to go from the present, to back fifty years, to ten years ago, to the present, to ten years ago, etc. This is while following multiple characters and their storylines. I would recommend reading this book if you plan on writing novels if only to see this layout. I often wonder how the author kept the story lines straight, and how each change to a different storyline left me wanting to continue the one I was reading.

The plot of the book is a man who rises from nothing and becomes one of Chairman Mao’s lieutenants (fictionally of course). He expands his power and sees himself guiding the course of all of China. He joined the communists because that is what he believed would unify China (a common idea in many Chinese stories). And once China was unified, he looked to guide China on a path that would make it, essentially, a big Hong Kong.

Shi Zilin’s strategy is amazing in its scope and amazing in how he deals with all threats to his plan. In one of my favorite parts, Shi Zilin gets his assistant to have an affair so that his assistant would get caught and could be blackmailed by Shi Zilin’s enemies.  His enemies, of course, got only the information that he wanted them to get.

I’ll leave you with a quote, from the opening page (from memory):

There is sadness in beauty.  When you understand that, you will no longer be a boy.

Tim blogs at Spootville.

Read Next: “Redwood to Deadwood: Hitchhiking America Today” by Colin Flaherty