Tsundoku: The Art of Buying Books You Can’t Read

Maybe you have someone in your life who has a stack of TBRs (meaning “to read”), and you’re starting to worry. It may be a dozen books on their bedside table. It may be a shelf (or two…or three…or an entire shelf) of books whose covers have not yet been opened. Maybe that person in your life is you. Maybe it’s me. It’s me. It’s definitely me.

Is this collection of unread books cause for concern? Will reality TV hosts come down to my house to dump the books I haven’t read yet? Is it an undiagnosed disease? No! It’s actually a nice lifestyle concept that has a serene name: tsundoku (pronounced tsoon-DOH-koo). I feel better just saying the word.

the the Cambridge dictionary has this definition for tsundoku:

The practice of buying lots of books and piling them up because you intend to read them but haven’t yet; also used to refer to the stack itself.

It is a practice, not a disease. You know what else is a practice? Meditation. And that’s great for people. So tsundoku is probably great for people too. How could it not be so?

It comes from the root of the words “tsumu,” which means “to stack” and “doku“, which means “to read”. It was used in print in 1879, in the phrase “tsundoku sensei”, which sounds like a pretty important and admirable person, if you ask me. However, this usage was “likely to be satirical”, notes the BBC. Harumph.

Bibliomania, however, is bad news. It was the title of a 19th century novel by Thomas Frognall Dibdin, who could also be a character from “The Lord of the Rings”. This term has been stigmatized for some time, as if someone obsessed with books could be unbalanced. Now, bibliomania is used to refer to someone who channels their passion for books into a deliberately curated collection.

Tsundoku practitioners, on the other hand, accumulate books on whim, almost at random. Collecting is driven by curiosities and interests that may be eternal or fleeting, but these interests always translate into the purchase of a few books. The problem – if you have to call it that – is that it takes a while to buy a book in a store or online and at least a few days to read a book. Usually, you read a book you bought long before that new book hits your doorstep. So the books pile up faster than you can read them. No shame in that, my friends.

We know that reading fiction can increase the empathy, which we could all use more these days. Having a pile of unread books can also instill a sense of humility in the face of how much we don’t know. And that could offer a counterweight to the Dunning–Kruger effect, where we think we know more about a subject than ourselves.

We are in good company without tsundoku habits. Author Umberto Eco had a personal library of 30,000 volumes and he readily admitted that he had not read them all. He has even did the math and found that it was basically impossible for him to read all of his books.

Nassim Nicolas Taleb writes in his book “Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable:”

Read books are worth much less than unread books. [Your] The library should contain as much of what you don’t know as your financial means, mortgage rates and the current tight real estate market allow you to fit.

Challenge accepted.

Christopher S. Washington