(English Language) Review of a Disappointing Book: 独学大全 by 読書猿

The Self-Study Encyclopedia by Dokushozaru

This book is designed to snare curious browsers at the bookstore in every way. From a distance we can see it’s massive – the 750+ pages are a solid 5 cm/2 in thick. Come a little closer and the distinguished cover design and jacket copy appeal, and is that a textured jacket? Oo. We must pick this up and ooph, it’s heavy. A look at the edge reveals thumb indexing and paper in no fewer than three colors.

Opening the book is an experience as well, revealing a beautiful title page in a fourth color of paper, followed by the requite sales pitch of a forward. (In Japanese popular nonfiction the forward comes before the table of contents, all the better to draw readers in.) On a flip we see that there are footnotes, tables, graphs, flow charts, pictures of famous people who apparently have this self-study thing down. And, like the cover says, we want to get back on the study train, right? The tome obediently follows us to the cash register.

Once we get home and settle in, though, it’s easier to see the true nature of the book. Yes, it’s an “encyclopedia” of self-study, outlining how to get motivated, how to choose a topic, how to find the time, and finally (finally) techniques for actually getting the information into your brain and have it stick there. The layout has generous white space at the bottom, which sometimes holds supplemental info but more than often does not. The footnotes (on the left side of a two page spread in Japanese) are copious and most often skippable. And each section is introduced with a dialogue between a wizened learner and a youngin’ which, while cute, only barely sets up the forthcoming topic.

We forgive a bunch of this – marketing, visual appeal, we get it – but the text itself proves to be the most disappointing. The first chapter makes a show of using rarer, hard to read kanji, but I wanted to yell at my dictionary with every look up. Why is もちろん (of course) written 勿論?Another pet word, 咀嚼、is akin to using “masticate” instead of “chew”. They feel like hard words thrown in to make you feel smart if you know them, feel like you’re getting smarter if you don’t, but they don’t serve the text.

And the padding, my god the padding. つまり (in other words), まとめると (to put it all together), and 例えば (for example) get extensive play. Long katakana words are repeated often, usually accompanied by a similarly lengthy English gloss. We get the life story of historical smart dudes, even though it doesn’t apply to the study tip at hand. And they’re all guys. The only woman I remember discussed Kató Lamb which, deserving, but that’s it?

Several of the techniques are variations on an idea and should have been presented as such, not whole chapters unto themselves. The case studies at the end may be interesting if you’re in a similar situation, maybe, but otherwise are skimmable.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not expecting “how to study” books to reinvent the genre. A lot of the information is stuff I already know, and that’s fine. I’m looking for new tricks, for ways to reframe my thinking, and an engaging read. I found a few examples of each, but not enough to justify 750 pages, 3000+ yen (~$30 US), and eight weeks of my time.

It’s hard to recommend buying 独学大全 when there are other, more interesting and fulfilling self-study books out there. Worth a borrow from the library, but if you’re looking for content over hype steel up your reserve and leave this self-study encyclopedia on the shelf in the bookstore.