One of my first posts at Book Riot was all about my obsessive need to bring a lot of books home and then quietly despair as they pile up and go unread. The massiveness of my TBR led to plenty of anxiety—that is, until I came across this post from the BBC and everything changed.
Suddenly, my massive stockpile of unread books doesn’t mean I’m a hoarder, thank you very much. It means I’m an artist. By bringing more and more unread books into the home and walling myself in with them, I’m actually engaging in the Japanese art form of tsundoku.
What is tsundoku? Well, dear reader, I’m glad you asked. The term first appears in print as early as 1879, but it was likely in use even before that. The word combines two Japenese words: doku, which as a verb means “reading,” and a form of the word tsumu, which means “to pile up.”
What could be the possible benefit of amassing books you might never read? A. Edward Newton, who was an avid book collector and wrote three books on the subject in the early 20th century, puts it best: “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…We cherish books even if unread, their mere presence exudes comfort, their ready access reassurance.”
Newton reportedly had 10,000 books in his collection when he died, so I don’t exactly encourage anyone to follow his example, especially if you live in a small NYC apartment, like me. But his words did make me realize that I can get a lot of comfort out of my unread books. And it’s not just comforting knowing that I might get to them one day.
Unread books are comforting in a way that read books aren’t. With read books, you know what happens, but unread books suggest infinite possibilities. There’s the anticipation of what they might contain; the excited expectation of worlds and lives yet unexplored. No wonder we love browsing libraries and bookstores, spending time among stacks of books and carefully choosing our next read.
So If I’m going to practice tsundoku anyway, I might as well do it properly. I’ve decided to no longer stress about all the books in the world I want to read but haven’t gotten to yet. I’ve also decided not to worry about all of the books I have on my shelf or Kindle that I need to get to.
I have plenty of time to get to them, and I can find comfort in the fact that they’ll be there, waiting to be read, when I’m ready.