Anna Weir is a publicist at UNP who organizes her bookshelves by color.
Words in English can have multiple meanings or implications. It’s concise, which makes it the world’s business language. It’s creative, which draws daydreaming romantics like me to it. But there are some ideas that English, for all its flexibility, just can’t convey. These ideas take shape in foreign alphabets, and I admire them from a distance like exotic birds at the zoo.
One of my favorites of this variety is Japanese. Tsundoku is something that plagues me year-round. Generally, it’s not a problem. Generally, I barely even notice it happening. Around this time of year, however, as summer reading lists and book/beach pics flood my news feed, I look around and wonder how I let things get so out of hand.
Tsundoku is a word that basically means “to buy books only to let them pile up unread on the shelf.” I enact tsundoku so often it’s like a ritual. The amount of time it requires may vary, depending on the book and my state of mind (and bank account), but the steps to tsundoku are always the same. If you’re anything like me, you’re already familiar with these steps.
First, you fall in love with a book. There may be several reasons why you love it. It’s the latest in your favorite series. It has a flashy cover and engaging description that has you obsessed. Maybe it’s a topic or genre you desperately want to know more about. Whatever your reason, you can’t just leave it on the shelf.
Next, the book must end up in your home. It’s best to allow for quite a bit of time for this to happen. You may have to pace around the bookstore for hours with it pressed against your heart, it doesn’t matter, it’s going home with you.
The following step is somewhat arbitrary—it doesn’t really matter where you put the book. Find the perfect set of neighboring hardcovers to house it between. Lay it tenderly on your nightstand, looking forward to the end of the day, after all the to-dos have been done and you can curl up with your newfound treasure. The crucial part of the act of tsundoku is not where the book is left, but the fact that you don’t actually read it.
Maybe you have very good reasons for why you don’t start that book, like finishing homework or watching children or making dinner. Maybe you have less good ones, like looking at cross stitch patterns for hours on Pinterest (guilty). But you don’t. And days go by and weeks go by and surely amid all this time spent living and working and cleaning and watching Netflix, some of it, at least, could have been spent reading rather than tsundoku-ing.
There is a comforting sweetness about a new book. You can leave it on your nightstand, knowing it’ll wait to tell its tale until the rest of your life calms down a bit. One new book is patient. Two new books might lead to a few guilt trips. Three or more and the stack of unread titles grows into something huge and unwieldy, like an overlooked zucchini.
As I scroll through more and more posts about summer reads and bestsellers, I look at my stack of tsundoku‘d books and realize I don’t even know what I like to read anymore. Gone are my days of devouring one YA fantasy after another. Gone even are my college classes that tell me what to read, that give me quizzes and deadlines that force me to keep reading. While these tsundoku‘d books have been waiting for me, I’ve been out living my life, taking in new things, changing into a different person. A person who, maybe, after all this time, isn’t even interested in most of these books anymore.
A recent article in the New York Times suggested that, as it gets harder and harder to find time to read, we are less inclined to read new things and more likely to reread old favorites. I personally have to agree. I have a stack of books on my nightstand, mostly tsundoku‘d, and the only one I’m actively reading is Slaughterhouse Five, something I read back in high school, and I’m only reading it again because I can’t remember why it ends with “poo-too-weet?” I have literally thousands of pages worth of new stories to get lost in and I chose to revisit a battered paperback highlighted in gold gel pen. And as I turn to books I’ve read before, at least in part, I still impulsively tsundoku any and every new book I can get my hands on.
So here I am, with a shelf full of books and nothing to read. I’ve tsundoku‘d so often that my new books are old and the rest of the book world is buzzing about newer ones. I’m tempted to pick up something more recent—Zero K by Don DeLillo, perhaps—and leave my stacks of unread books exactly as they are. Yet part of me knows that new book would only end up like the others, in a stack, waiting patiently.
So maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll end the vicious tsundoku cycle. Maybe I’ll actually—dare I say it—read some of these books.
This will take a while. A long, long while. And if your amount of tsundoku‘d books comes anywhere close to mine, you might be daunted, even overwhelmed by the task.
Don’t lose heart, fellow reader. Don’t be discouraged. Just read. Make it your goal to read one new book this summer, from start to finish. If, like me, you’re somewhat unimpressed with your current selection, take a gander through UNP’s diverse selection. We publish something for everyone.
Take your time. Our books are patient.