I first found The Tale of Genji in a military library on Camp Humphreys in Korea. The volume was huge, and the plastic jacket was torn, yellowed, and taped. I had no idea what the book was about, only that it was 1000 and more pages. The translator was Arthur Waley. For three months I immersed myself in the tome until I almost refused to part with it. Later, I also read an abridged version translated by Seidensticker.
This particular volume includes only the first novel of the series; there are actually six in the entire work. It is a dense 190-page introduction to the Heian period of Japanese culture, Buddhism, and Genji. But, this piece of the novel is the best introduction to the work as a whole, and I am grateful for it, although I also want to re-read the succeeding five novels again. If you do not have the time to read 1000 pages (although I heartily recommend it), this is the next best course of action.
The theme of the book is karma, and , specifically, that bad intentions and actions will affect the lives of others in our own life and in the lives to come. Although the succeeding five novels show much more poignantly how an ancestor's actions hurt his children, in the first novel, Genji's actions affects those around him in a very direct way.
The psychological descriptions of the main characters rival any modern work by Dostoevsky. The charm of the title characters distracts the reader from the suffering occuring around him, but Murasaki paints a hauntingly beautiful picture of 11th Century Japan. Waley's translation is fluid, but sometimes quaint and misguided. This volume may be the best value I have ever found, including discount books at second-hand stores and garage sales.