Tsundoku: The Art of Buying Books You Can't Possibly Read

By: Kristen Hall-Geisler  | 

tsundoku
If you have piles (and piles) of books you can't find time to read, you're not alone. And you don't have a "sickness"; it's just tsundoku. saulgranda/Getty Images

Maybe you have someone in your life who has a towering TBR (that's "to-be-read") pile, and you are starting to have concerns. Maybe it's a dozen books on their nightstand. Maybe it's a shelf (or two ... or three ... or an entire shelving unit) of books that have yet to have their covers cracked open. Maybe this person in your life is you. Maybe it's me. It's me. It's definitely me.

Is this collection of unread books something to be concerned about? Will reality TV hosts descend on my home to clear out the books I have yet to read? Is this some undiagnosed sickness? No! It's actually a lovely lifestyle concept that has a serene-sounding name: tsundoku (pronounced tsoon-DOH-koo). I feel better just saying the word.

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The Cambridge Dictionary has this definition for tsundoku:

The practice of buying a lot of books and keeping them in a pile because you intend to read them but have not done so yet; also used to refer to the pile itself.

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

It comes from the root words "tsumu," which means "to pile up," and "doku," which means "reading." 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. Harrumph.

Bibliomania, however, is bad news. It was the title of a 19th-century novel by Thomas Frognall Dibdin, who sounds like he might also be a character in "The Lord of the Rings." This term did carry a stigma for a while, as if a person who's obsessed with books could be unhinged. Now bibliomania is used to refer someone who channels their passion for books into a deliberately curated collection.

Tsundoku practitioners, on the other hand, accumulate books on whims, nearly at random. The collection is driven by curiosities and interests that may be forever and may be fleeting, but these interests always result in a couple of books being purchased. The problem — if you must call it that — is that it takes a moment to buy a book at a shop or online and at least a few days to read a book. Usually you're reading a book that you bought long before this new book arrived in your home. So the books pile up more quickly than you can read them. No shame in that, friends.

We know that reading fiction can increase a person's empathy, which we could all use more of these days. Having a pile of unread books also can instill a sense of humility in the face of all we don't know. And it might offer a counter to the Dunning-Kruger effect, where we think we know more about a subject than we do.

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

Nassim Nicolas Taleb writes in his book "Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable:"

Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. [Your] library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there.

Challenge accepted.

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