The Art of Tsundoku
Do you have a habit of buying more books than you could ever possibly read? Yeahhh, us too. Turns out that doesn’t make us greedy or foolish. It makes us Sensei of Tsundoku…
If you follow us on Facebook, you’ll know that the other month we posted a ‘humorous’ bar graph of the tallest structures in the world. It depicted buildings like Shanghai Tower, One World Trade Center and Burj Khalifa. Towering above them all, blocking out the sun and teetering precariously (yet still growing), was ‘The Chameleon’s “to-read” pile’ of books.
We put ‘humorous’ in inverted commas because we were only somewhat joking. We have books on our shelves that we might never get around to reading. They come in all shapes, sizes and thicknesses, and cover everything from scholastic studies of lost languages to ruminations on the nature of a Scottish winter. Throw in countless of the must-read classics of literature, some trashy best-selling fiction, and you’re looking at a whole library of tomes that are destined to go untroubled by human eyes.
We know we’re not alone in our habit of buying, collecting and gathering more books than we could ever possibly hope to read in the mournfully short time we’ll have here on Earth. What we didn’t know is that this doesn’t make us daft, or lazy, or foolish with our cash. It makes us masters of tsundoku. And discovering this has made us extremely happy.
What does tsundoku mean?
‘Tsundoku’ is a Japanese word formed by elegantly smashing together ‘tsun’, which means ‘to pile up’, and ‘doku’, which comes from a verb with meanings that include ‘reading’. Tsundoku is, therefore, the piling up of things to read. And it perfectly describes what’s happening to every ‘spare’ surface in the Comma Chameleon office. And in our homes.
It’s a little bit sad to note that there’s no equivalent word in English. Arguably the closest we have is ‘bibliomania’, but that describes the intentional collecting of books. Tsundoku, on the other hand, is the accidental collecting of books (which will go mostly unread) that comes about as a result of a desire to read them all. And that’s definitely us. Because we fully intend to read every book we own – we just accept that’s also a highly unlikely possibility.
‘Even when reading is impossible, the presence of books acquired produces such 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 owner of 10,000 books
What’s heartening to us at Comma Chameleon is that tsundoku hints not at an unrealistic expectation of lifespan, but rather a desire to enrich ourselves. It suggests we have an entrenched thirst for knowledge and accept that there will always be more we can know. So we really don’t need to feel guilty about all those un-cracked spines. Surrounding ourselves with unread books means we’re always aspiring to know more, and that’s got to be a good thing.
The statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls these unread books an ‘antilibrary’ – a concept he lays out in his best-selling book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. In it, Taleb opens with a discussion about lauded author and academic Umberto Eco, whose personal library housed an enviable 30,000 books. Eco would cleverly use his library to get the measure of any visitors to his house. He’d show them to his library, and then study their responses to the number of books therein. He found that people usually fell into one of two camps: those who thought the books explained why the author possessed such an expansive knowledge, and those who thought they displayed his thirst for more knowledge. No prizes for guessing which group was right…
Eco actually sat down at one point and worked out that, even if he managed to read one book a day, every day, between the ages of 10 and 80, he would only be able to get through 25,200 books in his lifetime. A mere ‘trifle’, he lamented, compared to the millions of books available for reading at every good library. We can relate. When we think about all the new books being published every year (a staggering 1.1 million worldwide), and all the books published since the printing press was invented in 1440 (135 million and counting), we get extremely sad. Even a million lifetimes wouldn’t be enough to get through that lot.
Taleb writes: ‘Read books are far less valuable that 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. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.’
Basically: buy as many books as you can afford to buy once you have paid the mortgage and fed and clothed your family, because there will always be more to know, and you will never know enough.
Why unread books matter
An unread book is far from useless. It’s not an extravagance, or a purchase for appearances’ sake. An unread book is potential. It’s something to treasure, and something to look forward to. It’s the promise of that higher plane of existence that can only be attained through a greater knowledge of the world and a deeper understanding of humanity.
At the end of the day, what are books if not tools for escape, learning and self-improvement? Surely the more of these we can surround ourselves with, the better. So the next time you’re being questioned by your mum, your partner, whoever, as to whether you reeeally need to buy another book. Tell them yes. Yes, you do. Because you are a Master of Tsundoku. And it’s the only way to be.
Now, about that pile of books we have read, but refuse to get rid of…
Maybe that’s just hoarding.
But we’re OK with that too.