On Familiar Terms

In an era of bombast and self-aggrandizement, Donald Keene’s calm, lucid, superbly written autobiography is a delight. Although all autobiographies are necessarily biased, Keene has made a supreme effort to view his own life, as well as those of the many great writers and scholars about whom he writes, with clarity, wisdom, and sensitivity.

Keene, who expressed an early interest in languages, went to Columbia University to study comparative literature, intending to focus on French, German, Latin, and Greek. After becoming friendly with a Chinese student who sat next to him in class, however, he became interested in the Chinese language and culture, learning that there was a huge area of the human experience about which he knew nothing. Keene’s first study of Japanese occurred when a man approached him and asked him to spend the summer with him and one other student in the mountains of North Carolina. The man had hired a Japanese tutor and wanted other students around him so that he would be motivated to study hard.

After World War II broke out, Keene applied to the Naval Japanese Language School in Berkeley, California, and was accepted as a student on the strength of his brief study of the language. He went on to spend time in Hawaii, translating Japanese texts of various types and interviewing prisoners of war. His contact with native speakers of Japanese led him to improve his language skills and become even more interested in Japanese...

(The entire section is 452 words.)