Tsundoku: The practice of buying more books than you can read

stack of books
© Uximetc pavel

The Japanese word describes piling up books to save for later ... even if you'll never actually read them.

"Even when reading is impossible, the presence of books acquired produces such an ecstasy that the buying of more books than one can read is nothing less than the soul reaching towards infinity." – A. Edward Newton, author, publisher, and collector of 10,000 books.

Are you one of us? A master of tsundoku? Mine takes the shape of the aspirational stack by my bedside table – because I am going to read every night before bed, of course, and upon waking on the weekends. Hahaha. My tsundoku also takes shape in cookbooks ... even though I rarely cook from recipes. And I think I most fervently practice tsundoku when I buy three or four novels to pile in my suitcase for a five-day vacation. Sometimes not even one sees its spine cracked.

Thank heavens the Japanese have a word to describe people like us: tsundoku. Doku comes from a verb that can be used for "reading," while tsun "to pile up." The ol' piling up of reading things.

"The phrase 'tsundoku sensei' appears in text from 1879 according to the writer Mori Senzo," Professor Andrew Gerstle, a teacher of pre-modern Japanese texts at the University of London, explains to BBC. "Which is likely to be satirical, about a teacher who has lots of books but doesn't read them." Even so, says Gerstle, the term is not currently used in a mocking way.

Tom Gerken points out at BBC that English may in fact seem to have a similar word in "bibliomania," but there are actually differences. "While the two words may have similar meanings, there is one key difference," he writes. "Bibliomania describes the intention to create a book collection, tsundoku describes the intention to read books and their eventual, accidental collection."

Mmm hmm, guilty as charged.

It's interesting to consider the future of books right now – and the potential fate of words like tsundoku. We have dedicated e-readers and phones and tablets that could easily spell doom for the printed page. We have tiny houses and a major minimalism movement, both of which would seem to shun the piling of books that may go eternally unread. We have increasing awareness about resources and "stuff" in general; is there room for stacks of bound paper in the modern world?

While generally uncluttery, treehugging me thinks that transferring my tsundoku to a list of digital editions rather than a stack of physical ones might be the way to go ... the truth is, real books that one can hold in the hands are one of the things that I am loathe to abandon. I love the smell, the weight, the turning of pages. I love being able to easily flip back a few pages to reread a sentence that persists in my memory. And maybe, apparently, I love buying books that, ok, maybe I don't seem to actually read.

So here's the deal I've made with myself. I will resist fast fashion and crummy unsustainable food and a bunch of plastic crap that I don't need. And in return, I will allow myself to engage in some tsundoku – besides, it's not actually a waste because of course, I'm going to get to that teetering stack of books someday, really. And if the Japanese have a poetic word for it, it must be alright.

Tsundoku: The practice of buying more books than you can read
The Japanese word describes piling up books to save for later ... even if you'll never actually read them.

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