Have you ever been excited about a new book you’ve bought, only to bring it home and place it on an ever-growing stack of unread books? If so, you might be an unknowing practitioner of tsundoku.
I’ve already written about the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi in an earlier post. Tsundoku is another Japanese concept that we badly need in the English language. It is a pun that became part of Japanese slang at the very beginning of the Meiji era, a period when the country was rapidly modernizing and Westernizing. The word is formed from two others – Tsumu, which means to pile something up, and doku, which means to read. When mashed together to become more easily pronounceable, they became tsundoku: a pile of unread books.
Originally the word was used satirically, to poke fun at professors who had large collections of books that they never read. The word no longer has any bite to it in modern usage, and simply refers to the fact of having piles of unread books.
This could be a small stack beside your bed that you reach for just before going to sleep, or overflowing shelves that threaten the structural integrity of your house. It could also be a section of your bookshelves where books, purchased with good intentions, languish untouched. The physical manifestations of tsundoku are as varied as the readers (or non-readers) themselves. In this age there is also perhaps room for the idea ofe-tsundoku, where vast numbers of e-books sit unread on readers and in archives. By this standard, Kindle Unlimited may be the greatest expression of tsundoku ever created, for good or for ill.
You might think that English already has a word for tsundoku in bibliomania. Literally “book madness,” I would suggest that there is a key difference between the two terms. A bibliomaniac collects books deliberately to form a collection. A practitioner of tsundoku does so unintentionally, accidently, all while collecting books that they intend to read. A bibliomaniac may collect books, even many copies of the same book, with no intention of ever reading them. Tsundoku, by contrast, begins with a different intent, even if it remains unfulfilled.
Full disclosure: I have a modest collection of about 1500 books, many if not most of which I have read. I take great pleasure in reading, but also in being able to pull a book off my shelf when researching something, or when I want to recommend a copy of something to a friend. As I sit writing this, I am very comfortably ensconced between shelves of books, some of which I’ve read, some I’ve partially read, and some I’ve yet to read. This collection of books exude comfort for me as a writer, especially when they are close at hand should I want a reference, inspiration, or even just a break.
I think that people commonly over-estimate the value of what we know, and under-estimate the value of what we don’t. This leads us to inflate our own ego, and to feel that our strength comes from our knowledge. A library of only books that have been read is a static thing, a trophy to what we know, even if it grows at the pace of our reading.
A stack of unread books, on the other hand, represents all that we don’t know, and is a reminder that our strength is not in what we were or are, but in what we can learn and become. A library of unread books is a means of self-improvement, discovery and growth. My tsundoku habit represents near limitless potential.
A person’s book collection can often be a symbolic representation of their mind, with their ego and sense of self wrapped up in it. A person who has quit expanding their library may have reached the point where they think they know everything they need to know. Their ignorance of the breadth of their ignorance gives them confidence.
A stack of unread books is perhaps a testament to this ignorance – but also to the fact that there are unknown worlds yet to discover, and that the means to do so are close at hand.