“Pleasure in Profit: Popular Prose in Seventeenth-Century Japan” by Laura Moretti


Laura Moretti’s Pleasure in Profit begins and ends with the image of a bookshop in 17th-century Kyoto:


Now step back in time, to seventeenth-century Japan. Imagine yourself on Teramachi Street, in the heart of Kyoto.


These bookend what is in essence Moretti’s attempt to catalogue the diverse selection of texts on sale four hundred years or so ago in these “bygone bookshops”, ranging from letter-writing guides and cookbooks to books providing financial advice and records of recent natural disasters. The aim is to uncover what Moretti terms “the Great Unread”, a body of texts that despite being bought and enjoyed by a large number of readers, are not artistically or stylistically noticeable enough to be considered part of the “canon” and therefore worthy of academic study. Moretti positions her book very well in the introduction, making a clear case for researching books from the perspective of “what readers were actually interested in”. She also points out how popular literature was appearing all over the world during the later parts of the 17th century, from the bibliothèque bleue in France and chapbooks in England to lubok literature in Russia and literatura de cordel in Brazil.

One book-trade catalogue from 1666-1667 records 1,356,500 books in circulation

Pleasure in Profit: Popular Prose in Seventeenth-Century Japan, Laura Moretti (Columbia University Press, December 2020)
Pleasure in Profit: Popular Prose in Seventeenth-Century Japan, Laura Moretti (Columbia University Press, December 2020)

Seeing through the eyes of a 17th-century reader, though, is much easier said than done. On the most basic level, as Moretti acknowledges, the 17th-century reader left behind very few traces for us to latch onto. There are rarely notes in the margins, reviews or commentaries written by the ordinary readers Moretti strives to document. In most instances, all that is left is the text itself. As a consequence, she often works backwards, using the content and organization of texts to reconstruct the experience of those elusive readers past.

There is also the issue of proving, for want of a better word, that these texts were read by as broad an array of public as Moretti contends. She dedicates a large portion the first chapter to showing how “Numbers Can Talk”, using extensive numerical data to demonstrate that the publishing industry was thriving in the 1600s, and specifically that publishers were making most of their money selling cookbooks, civility guides and so on to the average punter. She discusses, for example, how one book-trade catalogue from 1666-1667 records 1,356,500 books in circulation—enough books for each of the million or so adults living in the main cities (Kyoto, Edo and Osaka) at the time. It also becomes clear in this chapter that Moretti is for the most part looking at book production and consumption from around 1650 onwards, as opposed to the century as a whole. As for prices, Moretti argues that there were books available “for every taste and every pocket”, and that by the end of the century it was possible to purchase a household manual in Edo (now Tokyo) for less than the price of a bowl of steamed rice seasoned with tea.

When it comes to the texts themselves, analysis of which makes up the majority of the book, Moretti complements her examples with consistent suggestions on how the text might have been read by 17th-century readers. Particularly memorable sections include Moretti’s description of a religious text that tells a story of a woman so obsessed with her lover that she turns into a snake—later wrapping herself around his waist to punish his crimes against her—and of civility books read for escapism, allowing ordinary readers to imagine themselves part of a social class in which such rules were valued.

There’s also a chance to glimpse inside the 17th-century kitchen in a Japanese city. A 1643 cookbook titled “A commentary on the secret tradition of cookery” reveals sea bream as “the king of the kitchen” at the time, with multiple recipes on how to cook and serve the fish. The same book also contains “Section that records all sorts of things heard and recorded”, a collection of helpful cooking tips and general advice on all things food-related.

Equally entertaining is Moretti’s description of books about money, in which she considers how a fresh focus on wealth in 17th-century Japan left readers anxious to answer the eternal question: “how can we make money?” She finds that the books offer “little meaningful advice” but instead satiate an appetite for information on money management with general encouragement to be frugal, as “there is no second generation to a millionaire.”

For the academic reader, Moretti offers an extensive, detailed catalogue of these texts, often including translated extracts, that will surely prove an invaluable contribution to English-language research on Japan’s 17th-century literary culture.


Readability is so often the touchstone when reviewing academic books like Pleasure in Profit for a non-specialist audience. It seems of particular importance in this case. Moretti has written a book about the pleasures of reading in 17th-century Japan: needless to say, it would be ironic if the book were a struggle to get through. For the most part, Pleasure in Profit is truly a pleasurable read, helped throughout by ample illustrations which bring Moretti’s prose to life. At times, though, the sheer volume of romanized Japanese may prove confusing for a reader who isn’t familiar with the language. Often the titles of texts are left untranslated and are instead referred to only by their Japanese titles. The reasoning for this choice is very understandable—Moretti’s target audience is undoubtedly others in the field of Japanese Studies—but readers unfamiliar with the language might struggle at times to keep track.

Mostly, though, Pleasure in Profit is refreshingly ambitious in its framing, and Moretti skillfully treads the fine line between a meticulous academic work, and a book that can hold appeal to a wider audience. Among the detailed analysis there is for the modern reader—like the 17th-century Edo conduct-book reader—an opportunity for escapism: Moretti’s work transports a reader elsewhere and allows them, even briefly, to glimpse the world through another’s eyes.

Aoife Cantrill is a PhD student at the University of Oxford. She is currently working on a history of translation in 20th century Taiwan.