When New York Times Magazine critic Sam Anderson visited Tokyo last year to interview Haruki Murakami, he arrived, he later wrote, "expecting Barcelona or Paris or Berlin -- a cosmopolitan world capital whose straight-talking citizens were fluent not only in English but also in all the nooks and crannies of Western culture: jazz, theater, literature, sitcoms, film noir, opera, rock 'n' roll." It's no wonder -- Anderson had immersed himself in Murakami's fictional Japan, where ennui-afflicted characters read Kafka and listen to Thelonious Monk. Although his novels are set in his insular native country, Murakami has become something of a patron saint of globalization.
Growing up outside Kobe, Murakami became enamored of American jazz and Western writers, from Dostoyevsky to Vonnegut, Dickens to Capote. He owned a jazz club in Tokyo before turning to the world of fiction, where he is renowned for his genre-bending novels that span different universes yet are littered with real-world cross-cultural references. Now, with 12 novels and dozens of short stories translated into more than 40 languages, Murakami is his country's most famous living author.
His latest novel, the nearly 1,000-page 1Q84, has been hailed as a lively, if bizarre, creative achievement and a paean to a Tokyo that Murakami calls "a kind of civilized world." But Murakami doesn't shy away from hot political topics. Last year he controversially called Japan's Fukushima nuclear accident a "mistake committed by our very own hands." And this year, after his books were pulled from shelves in China amid a territorial dispute with Japan, he chalked up the standoff to the "cheap liquor" of nationalism. 1Q84's title is a nod to the classic by George Orwell, with whom Murakami says he has a "common feeling against the system" -- a subversiveness he perhaps best expresses by creating a universe all his own.
These days, it's nearly impossible to get Republicans and Democrats to agree on anything. But Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, managed to capture the attention of both left and right with this year's The World America Made. The book, which argues forcefully that American decline is a myth and calls for a continued assertive U.S. role in world affairs, was a major influence on Barack Obama's 2012 State of the Union address, in which the president declared, "Anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned doesn't know what they're talking about." Mitt Romney's campaign, meanwhile, brought on Kagan as a foreign-policy advisor.
Kagan, whose previous big-think book cemented the Bush-era image of a muscular America from Mars and a soft-power Europe from Venus amid the disagreements of the Iraq war, now makes a powerful case that the present international order rests on U.S. military and economic might -- not its liberal values. Maintaining American hegemony is imperative for global peace and security, he argues, because "one of the main causes of war throughout history has been a rough parity of power that leaves nations in doubt about who is stronger." In an election year, it's not difficult to see why Kagan's narrative about America's indispensability appealed to both parties. Romney, for example, took to including a line or two about how America is the "greatest country in the history of the world" in his speeches. Obama liked the book so much that he reportedly spent 10 minutes during a meeting with leading media personalities going over an excerpt line by line.
Reading list: Breaking the Heart of the World, by John Milton Cooper; George F. Kennan, by John Lewis Gaddis; Berlin 1961, by Frederick Kempe. Best idea: Reviving the long-form essay. Worst idea: More social networking. American decline or American renewal? Renewal. More Europe or less? More. To tweet or not to tweet? Not.