Tsundoku is the Japanese word describes piling up books to save for later.
“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.
Doku comes from a verb that can be used for “reading,” while tsun means “to pile up.” So, essentially, the 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. “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 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.”
The Future of Books
It’s interesting to consider the future of books right now—and the potential fate of words like tsundoku. We have dedicated e-readers, 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 increased awareness about resources and “stuff” in general; is there room for stacks of bound paper in the modern world?
While generally minimalist sustainable 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 hand 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. But, I can also buy used books, saving them from the landfill and giving them a home amonst their misfit cousins.
So here’s the deal I’ve made with myself. I will resist fast fashion and crummy unsustainable food and a bunch of plastic junk 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 all right.