The Edge of Hope in “The Great Wave” – Chicago Review of Books

How do we begin to talk about the past four years—or even farther back—where perhaps the most unprecedented thing is the unprecedented need to overuse the word unprecedented? Tell me about it! In The Great Wave, Michiko Kakutani’s latest—a part political, part historical, nonfiction ride of a book—she does just that, taking us on a ride through the motions (of a great, big political ocean), to show us the politics, history, and social movements that have led up to our unprecedented-turned-precedented times. 

I could argue that if the book had a traditional hero’s journey arc, it’d follow us, humankind, throughout history as, when faced with seemingly insurmountable troubles, we are able to fight battles—both real and metaphorical—to achieve the greater good. Each chapter is marked by one print from the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai—the most famous of these being The Great Wave off Kanagawa. And the book’s cover image is a reimagined version of The Great Wave. This intentional use of Hokusai’s work is representative of—as Kakutani says in the epilogue—an “uncanny sense of both existential contingency and Buddhist calm—a recognition and acceptance of the precariousness of life.” 

Thus, Kakutani has chosen what may be a perfect symbol for life in 2024. The Great Wave, she writes in her introduction, is “an image that embodies the feelings of dread and hope that come with swift, unpredictable change.” Kakutani is effective in her book by showing us that with this great change—whether it’s the Black Death or New Journalism of the ’60s—come great cultural shifts. Her examples resonate, and the book is a hefty reminder that not all (seemingly) negative change remains negative forever, as it’s often very important for any kind of growth. In a chapter titled “Resilience in the Vuca-Verse,” for example, she talks about how the oh-so-many current worldwide crises can be seen as “dire warnings” or “stress tests.” “Danger and crisis,” she writes, “clearly, can shock people out of complacency.” And, thinking most recently about the aftershocks of COVID, the 2016 US Presidential election, and the Black Lives Matter momentum of 2020, her assessment feels accurate. 

Throughout the book, Kakutani continues this approach: she tells us about a huge—and often radical—change or movement in history, and ends with analysis or a where-do-we-go-from-here. Though I was glad for a review of this history and was interested in her analysis, I often found myself wondering what the book’s real aim is. Parts of it make me wonder if Kakutani’s true goal was to dissuade voters from choosing Trump in 2024, to give history and examples as if to say, “We made these mistakes and we learned from them, but we can’t make them again.” 

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In her epilogue, she talks about supporting independent journalism as key to functioning democracy, and states that “the public must recognize the risks of Trump winning reelection in 2024,” discussing certain campaign promises he’s already made that she says would make a second Trump presidency “even more authoritarian than the first.” I fear that the kind of reader who would generally read Kakutani’s book is already the kind of voter who would pick Biden or another Democrat, and who may read a book like this to confirm preexisting beliefs. Although The Great Wave engages in hard topics, and is certainly important and culturally significant, I just don’t think it will reach the audience who needs it most. Which is ironic, given Kakutani’s discussion of media literacy and misinformation.

The Great Wave: The Era of Radical Disruption and the Rise of the Outsider
By Michiko Kakutani
Crown Publishing Group
Published February 20, 2024

Ruby Rosenthal

Ruby Rosenthal is an MFA candidate at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia, focusing on creative nonfiction. Currently at work on her first essay collection, she generally writes about identity politics. Also, she’s a very big fan of hot sauces of all kinds; she doesn’t discriminate.

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