A friend recently sent me this article on tsundoku, a Japanese word for “reading pile” that has acquired a more specific interpretation among book lovers in America: for us, tsundoku means “buying books and letting them pile up unread.”
For many years, I practiced the art of tsundoku with both fervor and guilt. I loved the traipse home from a book store, arms cradling three or four new acquisitions, half of which would sit unopened for weeks. And: “Yes, I want to borrow that book,” I’d state urgently to my father after a rousing review, my head bobbing in eagerness. And then The Autobiography of Ulysses S. Grant would sit on my bedside table, untouched, for months, a visual reminder of my failure at time management, my out-of-wack prioritization of fluff lit over starchier fare. Worse was when I would start a book and stall a few chapters in. That unfinished business would hang, pall-like, over my head for weeks on end. “Oh, I can’t quite get through it,” I’d sputter to an inquiring friend of the book on loan. Or “I’m juggling a couple of different books,” I’d apologize. “Let me return it and I’ll just rent it instead,” I’d add sheepishly. And when friends would visit my home and point out spines that intrigued them, I’d gulp if I’d not yet read one of them: “Oh, I just got that,” I’d say, embarrassed not to have a more complete review on hand. In some abstruse bookworm code, it seemed to me that if I had the book on display on my shelf, I should have read it already.
You see, I have a kind of puritanical devotion to the books I commit to reading, likely aftermath of my diligence as a student. If something was assigned, I read it, in no small part out of fear of being called upon in class and being exposed as a fraud, which happened occasionally to classmates of mine in high school. A friend recently told me that she opted to read the cliff notes for Romeo and Juliet and our sophomore English teacher wrote on her paper: “You didn’t read the book, did you?” The shame that “outing” would have caused my impressionable, goody-goody-two-shoes self far outweighed the relative burden of reading all of my assignments. And so I read with what I can only describe as completion desire: the satisfying tick of something off my list, the book’s snug addition to my overstuffed bookshelf, all full of notes and doodles and inconsequential marginalia. I can appreciate the psychology of GoodReads for this reason: yes, it is helpful for book discovery, but it is also a tidy way for us to organize and display our collected books in a digital space.
Things have changed with regards to my tsundoku over the past few years. For one thing, I have had the occasion to revisit and interrogate the compunction I associated with lowbrow literature, and, as a corollary to that inquisition, I have also re-evaluated my feelings around reading books to completion. The guilt, I have decided, is uncalled for and misplaced. Life is simply too short to read bad books, or books that do not speak to me. Nowadays, I average two books a month. That means that in a given year, I’ll read around 25 books; in a decade, 250. There are probably well north of 100,000 books worth reading in a lifetime — an arbitrary number, sure, but the point is that even if we are prolific readers, we will only canvass a small fraction of the great (and even not-great-but-highly-enjoyable) books available to us, and so why should we cede one of those coveted 250 spots each decade to something less than? Something that we tarry in reading? Something that we dread picking up? Good books are in equal measure medicinal and indulgent, instructing me as they distract me, but if I can taste the bitter herb too keenly, or find the sticky coating too cloying? Well, in the words of Ariana Grande: thank u, next. And so my tsundoku has both shrunk and grown: I am more comfortable with books half-read and books set aside for later, but I am choosier about what makes its way into my possession, too. Kindle has accommodated this new outlook with flourish: I rarely pre-purchase books anymore. Instead, I wait until I am finished with one and then set out to find a new love. This means that the book I choose is almost always perfectly calibrated with my mood, increasing the likelihood that I will actually enjoy it and complete it.
But when my friend sent the article, I found myself further evolving my thinking on the topic. The mere existence of the word tsundoku is a welcome permission slip, almost as if language itself is telling me: “hush, hush, my over-anxious petit chou; everyone keeps a stack of unread books. Hence the existence of this word. It is not so much a misdemeanor as a condition of humanity.” And then — and I’m not sure if my friend sourced the article referenced above from Cup of Jo to begin with, but Cup of Jo pointed me in the direction of this post on the subject of tsundoku, which makes the case that unread books are more important than read ones. One thinker notes: “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 allow you to put there.” Now there’s a thought. I don’t know that I agree; I place an insurmountably high prize on the books I have wrung my heart over, the books whose words return to me in moments of loneliness, loss, and love, the books who have taught me lessons big and small about what it means to be a human. These books a part of me, print and paper turned heartbeat and blood. They are the filters through which I have navigated many life experiences. But. There is something to the fact that our libraries should be as much about the promise of something new as the lesson from something old, and that unimaginably great things await when we sit and read.
What does your tsundoku look like? #showmeyourtsundoku #whydoesthatsoundweird
+Black Friday deals are raging right now and I’m experiencing shopping whiplash. Will share later the things I’m actually buying (many of which are so un-exciting but necessary), but things I am eyeing already:
>>A spare set of sheets from Boll & Branch to supplement my new HHH set (people go insane over these sheets!) . They are running a tiered discounting situation depending on the size of your order.
>>With the Shopbop promotion, I am considering this Rixo London dress, these Jerome Dreyfuss boots (would actually look perfect with the Rixo dress), and — will you judge me magpies? — I’m kind of into the look of these hiker boots. They are super trendy for the season and I’m kind of digging them. (Also don’t forget that my favorite holiday jumpsuit is discounted with the code!)
>>Been waiting for this Madewell coat to go on sale! Done deal!
>>J. Crew! So many good things. I absolutely die over the 90s styling of this spaghetti strap plaid dress. It’s like Kate Moss meets Charlotte York and it is perfect. I also adore these plaid pumps. Increasingly, I am finding that I invest in statement shoes and leave the rest simple: well-fitting jeans and sweaters all the live long day, but they become interesting in the embrace of a ridiculous pair of shoes. And this striped henley in the dreamy cotton fabric HAD to happen. Will live in this, whether under joveralls or with jammies.
>>Why is Tory Burch slaying my wallet these days? Their footwear has been ON POINT. I am drooling over these embellished booties (30% off with code), wondering if I should return my straight-up black ones for these…
+After a thirty minute trek in 40-degree weather, I caved and bought mini the footmuff for her yoyo. I’m a sucker. I also ordered her a pair of snowboots and a snowsuit after being caught in the nor’easter last week with virtually nothing snow-appropriate on hand for her. The Polarn O. Pyret snowsuit is incredible but SIZE DOWN. Mini is usually a size 2 (she is in the 91% percentile of height!) but the size 2 could nearly fit me. I’m not even joking. I ordered her a size 1-1.5 and am confident it will fit her after seeing them in person at the P.O.P. on the UWS.
+Speaking of baby gear: moms who are lusting after the Yoyo but don’t appreciate the price tag, check this stroller out. Reviews are super strong and the styling is eerily similar to the Yoyo. (Buy one before they are sued for design infringement.)
+I went down a dark and winding rabbit hole researching the best notebooks and writing implements (don’t ask) and people die over these and these. And paper lovers are, like, really convincing. Some might say over the top. Still, I am buying one of each.
+I bought this set of notepads for my bedside table and desk. Love the designs and the different sizes/shapes — getting such good use out of them already. (Price is surprisingly reasonable for all you get, too!)
+Net-A-Porter just launched an epic sale, and included in the roundup is my favorite pair of festive shoes. (I own them in hot pink, but black and platinum are so versatile!) Also love this variation. And also worth considering: this Philosophy sweater, this ultra-covetable Ganni sweater, these Birman booties, and this statement blouse.
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9 thoughts on “The Art of Tsundoku.”
OK, I am a month (A MONTH!) behind on your lovely posts — the horror! — but I am finally done with work for the year and hope to catch up before the end of the year. 🙂 So much to comment on here! First of all, we are much the same when it comes to tsundoku and reading in general. I average about 30 books a year (thanks, Goodreads!) and I have finally also come around to the idea that I can abandon a book if I’m not feeling it after giving it a fair chance. I used to slog through books I hated — The Devil Wears Prada was actually the first book I remember abandoning, as I was a similar-minded student and carried that diligence over into my pleasure reading as well. But over the past couple of years, I’ve permitted myself to give up on books when I’m not vibing with them, and it’s freeing!
I loved this line: “the books who have taught me lessons big and small about what it means to be a human.” <3
Now, onto your sale picks! I, too, have been coveting a pair of hiking boots, though I really want classic tan Danner boots with red laces for a verrrry casual take on the trend. Haha! We'll see if I go for it.
Did you end up getting the Madewell coat? I remember discussing it with you previously & I may have mentioned wanting a version from Loup in cream — I ordered it last week & I am eagerly awaiting its arrival! Hoping to take it to Texas for Christmas break.
Also, LOVE that J.Crew velvet tartan dress that is now sold out, probably because I'm wearing the tank version over a long-sleeved black dress as I type! Sounds weird, but I kind of like it. Ha!
P.S. Those personalized notepads from Neiman are SUCH a good find … ordering for the new year!
My Tsundoku overfloweth, too. It’s a constant struggle with my husband, who is certain that one day in our old age he’ll be crushed by a stack of books. How can I turn down adding to the stack, though?
I just this week struggled through a novel that I couldn’t stand, but refused to give up. (I even trolled book reviews of it, baffled that I seem to be the only reader unimpressed.) The worst part is the feeling of not being able to pick up something new until the current one is completed, which often leads to longer reading breaks that I prefer.
I’ve always counted quiet reading time as my therapy, so thank you for the inspiration to give up on the ones that don’t serve me!
Yes! I say DROP THAT BOOK (to the tune of MOVE THAT BUS). Life is just too short. I do feel your pain, though. There’s always a grumble of frustration when I make the decision. xoxo
After moving twice over the past 4 years, I’ve stopped buying physical books, as much as it pains me – I realized that I rarely revisited them, and I just don’t have room for them right now. I HAVE taken to electronically borrowing books from my library though – so my tsundoku pile is electronic, rather than physical. (I have books I have been renewing for months, and others I read as soon as I get them in.)
It WAS freeing, however, to realize I didn’t have to finish a book if I wasn’t enjoying it. I don’t know why it took me so long to figure this out.
So many Black Friday/Cyber Monday sales – I’m loving your picks. And if you still had your eye on the Micro Mini scooter, they are 20% off on their website if you sign up for their loyalty club.
Oh wow – thanks for the scooter tip! Going to tell Mr. Magpie when he gets back so we can pick a color.
So on your same page with a lot of your musings on tsundoku. Yes – why did it take us so long to figure out that a bad book can be put to bed?! Without shame?! xoxo
Yes, yes, yes! I am the exact same with books, but have changed recently so I only buy one when I’m finished with the last too. That said, if I’m 50-75 pages in and dreading it, I set it aside. I also have found reading is such a habit. It’s amazing the length I’ll go to find pockets of reading time when I’m really into a book. Makes me wonder how much time I’m wasting in a waiting room just waiting, scrolling my phone, or cleaning up after my kids for the 100th time that day.
Also, just a note about the J. Crew plaid shoes, I found the sizing to be weird. They run very, very large for me.
And if you’re in the market for kids boots again, we really love Bogs. They slip on easily, they’re insulated, waterproof, seem to fit forever due to the stretch – all the things mom dreams are made of.
Right? I couldn’t believe how much I was able to read while nursing mini when I decided to leave my iPhone and hold my Kindle. Insane once you commit to the habit. Thanks for the heads up on shoe sizing — I’ll have to skip these because my feet are so tiny! Even the smallest will likely be too big…
I love the thought of one’s unread books as almost more valuable – I hadn’t looked at it that way. When I moved, it was so hard to part with the books I have read – I always dreamed of a Belle from Beauty and the Beast library one day, ha! But I kept the “books a part of me, print and paper turned heartbeat and blood.” Love that 🙂
And the sales right now have completely overwhelmed me! Looking forward to seeing more of your picks. xo
Yes – will share an update tomorrow or Friday. The sales are crazy. Currently experiencing whiplash trying to decide between all of the markdowns in Net A Porter/Shopbop and all of the insane promotions elsewhere. What’s a gal to do?! xx