I always thought I had a problem but, apparently, I do not. This is a relief, honestly. You see, I sleep next to an uneasy tower of unread books. There’s a non-fiction book about the Chicago world’s fair, and a science-fiction novel, and a collection of essays. I’ve been reading, slowly, a Pulitzer Prize-winning book that I hope to finish sometime by next winter. If I don’t finish it, that’s okay, too.
When I finish a book, it goes into another pile. There are people who sell or donate books they’ve read but I am not one of those people. I hold onto books like they’re sacred totems. If I had a personal style it would be “absent-minded wizard.” I love melted candles, and robes and books—opened, stacked, tossed aside.
The last time I moved I made sure to carefully pack my books. I love them and the many worlds that live within them. I marked the sides of the boxes “FRAGILE: BOOKS.” They were the first things I unpacked, too.
I use to think I was a hoarder but not anymore. What I am is “tsundoku,” which is a Japanese term for a person who owns lots of unread books.
The BBC recently talked to Andrew Gerstle, a professor of pre-modern Japanese texts at the University of London, about “tsundoku.” The professor explains that “doku” can translate to “reading,” and “tsun” can mean to “pile up.” It me.
Mr. Gerstle discussed the origins, as well. “The phrase ‘tsundoku sensei’ appears in text from 1879 according to the writer Mori Senzo, which is likely to be satirical, about a teacher who has lots of books but doesn’t read them,” he said.
While that reference is clearly sarcastic, the word has become endearing colloquialism for those of us who are enthusiastic collectors of literature. And I am happy to report “tsundoku” people are legion.
There are entire subreddits dedicated to those of us who maintain vast libraries of books that we can, at any given time, choose to crack open. I am especially fond of the #tsundoku hashtag on Instagram: just endless photos of books, books, books. My greatest dream is for someone to write an exhaustive book about “tsundoku” that I can buy and then never read.
I am a “tsundoku” person and, therefore, am going straight to my favorite used bookstore after work to adopt new books, the kind of used bookstore that smells ancient, like wood and smoke, ink and ideas. I will then haul my books home and carefully add them to my collection.
Here’s the thing: I am not particularly materialistic. I am remarkably simple when it comes to possessions: I own four or five pairs of good pants, a couple pairs of shoes, I have one extremely awesome kitchen knife that I can, if I want, use to cut tin cans in half with. I have a nice TV and a really nice bed (that sentence is brought to you by Casper, the benevolent mattress company that graciously employs me.) I, mean, I have stuff. But not a ton of stuff. I have a friend whose house is a Temple of Things: a robot vacuum cleaner, a couch that can transform into smaller couches, a dozen tchotchkes purchased during late nights spent online. He has all the gadgets, gizmos, and geegaws.
I have none of these things, but I do have books. I probably have multiple lifetime amounts of words in my small Manhattan apartment. I should probably build a chair out of books. I may not have the hours it would require to read all of my books from cover to cover. Sometimes I snack on them: read ten pages here, or there. Books are living things, like trees or stars. I bask in them. Draw energy from them.
I can’t stop buying books either, even if I have too many to read. I thrill when a new book, or an old book, whispers its promises to me. I am generally unhappy parting with my hard-earned money but I am always happy to exchange green slips of paper for bound volumes of paper, each page covered in secrets waiting to be discovered.
I don’t have a problem. I am part of a cultural tradition. An international order that is hundreds of years old. The Japanese have a word for it and I am that word. A modern-day wizard, really. I surround myself with knowledge and wisdom and dreams. I have a surplus of books because I am greedy. I cherish every verb and noun and thought. They are mine all mine. Soon I will have enough books—big and small, thick and thin, paperback and hard—that I will be able to build a staircase out of them, a staircase that goes all the way up into the unknown.