One thing I discovered after moving to Canada is that works by the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami are not as widely published in the English-speaking world as in Korea. Westerners know him primarily as a novelist, but the fact is that he has written a LOT of other books, including essays and travel writing. Personally I find that he can be a bit repetitive in his novels, and he is not quite my favorite author (although I like two of his novels very much), but I can recommend his essays unreservedly.
Murakami first started writing at a time when Western pop culture was still new and fascinating, and he combined his familiarity with it with lighthearted, witty observations of everyday life, when Literature was still supposed to be heavy and didactic. He was decidedly cool. There was no one who could describe the ennui of a spring afternoon, or preparing pasta with anchovies, quite the way Murakami could. The cover illustrations might give you an idea of how whimsical and fun the essays are.
Murakami had a longtime collaborator in the illustrator Mizumaru Anzai, and the books they produced together are the best of the lot, from the mid-80’s and early 90’s. The books at the back are more recent.
Now, there is a precious essay on pencils in one of these books, entitled “The Pencil in a Sailor Suit”, which I don’t think Western readers know all that well. Murakami has had his characters handle various writing instruments in his novels, and he has also done a series of ads for Parker fountain pens in the past too, but here he discusses his actual preferences as a writer. And the point is that he uses F pencils for work. He sharpens a dozen of them in the morning, stands them in a whiskey glass, and takes them out one by one.
The essay goes like this: while in conversation with a magazine editor of his acquaintance, they start discussing stationery. When Murakami states that he only uses F pencils, the editor comments, “But F pencils always remind you of a high school girl in a sailor suit, don’t you think so?” And Murakami is left for days pondering why this should be.
[Note: “sailor suit” refers to high school uniforms for girls with wide rectangular collars tied in a knot at the front. Boys wear somber black suits based on Prussian military uniforms. If you are a manga fan or have watched Japanese movies you will know what I mean.]
Murakami tries to forget this association and resorts to other pencils, but his imagination runs amok – wouldn’t the HB pencil then be a high-school boy in uniform? And H pencils remind you of Sting, of the rock band Police. Since he cannot use anything harder than a 2H or darker than a B for work, he is stuck with these three options, and, thrown by these human associations, he finds himself going over the galleys with a ballpoint pen instead of his usual pencil.
This collection of essays was published in 1986, so I don’t know if his work habits have changed since then, or whether he prefers a different grade of pencil now. Maybe, now that he’s been a famous writer for many decades, people from all over the world give him rare and precious F grade pencils. How fascinating would such a collection be!