“Tsundoku” is the Japanese art of buying books and never reading them. However, the size of your library is irrelevant, as long as you haven’t read anything in it.
Japan is a strange, wondrous place and, as such, they’ve birthed many odd terms that define the world as they see it. Kuidaore is the art of sending yourself into bankruptcy solely through the application of Uber Eats. Mimi ni tako ga dekiru is what you say when you’re tired of hearing the same complaints over and over (literally translated as “I’m growing callouses on my ear”), but it is the term tsundoku that I feel particularly victimized by.
Simply put, “Tsundoku” is the excessive purchasing of books, but leaving them untouched on your shelf.
I recognize that I have a problem. I’m forever tipsy on the cologne of books. They seek me out; it’s not me, it’s them. I once wrote a piece that loudly proclaimed two things: I was going to be more selective in my future paperback dalliances, and I was going to kick out the evidence of my previous impulsive page fingering.
I’m proud to say that that was a lie. I’m every bit the literary philanderer I was before, I’ve just become more open-minded, as my tastes have become slightly less … conventional. Like your garden variety nymphomaniac who has discovered the leather-bound constraints of extended kink, I’ve become more than I was before, adding to the volumes of my thirst. I just have another bookcase, undisclosed location, whereupon the books that I’m less likely to read reside.
The primary noose I feared was the social expulsion of being outed as a try-hard, a charlatan, a wanker. While I once bought books on the exclusive basis that I would pretend to read them, my impulse purchases are now motivated by an insistence that I will absolutely get around to reading them, at one point.
While I once bought books on the exclusive basis that I would pretend to read them, my impulse purchases are now motivated by an insistence that I will absolutely get around to reading them, at one point.
This is the apparent point of difference regarding tsundoku, as Umberto Eco (author, scholar, hoarder) famously possessed a library 30,000 strong. Oof. While many equated the size of Eco’s library to the size of his brain, it actually defined the weight of his wisdom. The point, you see, is that he hadn’t read that many, he wanted to. An impossibility, as Eco calculated that he could only read 25,200 if he started at the age of ten and read a book a day until he was eighty. His contention was that his library was minuscule compared to your options on offer at public libraries.
He believed that the key to a good library is the subtle pangs of regret and ambition you feel when you blithely stroll past it. It should solely exist as an example of all the things we don’t know. Our library should be stocked with mystery and it should flower topics that we are novices on. It should exist as a cerebral chin-check or, in the words of the prophet Kendrick, a reminder to be humble, bitch.
“We tend to treat our knowledge as personal property to be protected and defended,” statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes. “It is an ornament that allows us to rise in the pecking order. So this tendency to offend Eco’s library sensibility by focusing on the known is a human bias that extends to our mental operations. (It should be) the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books you possess. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.”
Simply put, Tsundoku be damned. I will get to my pile, and I will build another.
With that being said, if you also have a phrase that defines the art of being unable to commit to one book, so you read three at once and inadvertent cross the narratives, that’d really help me out.