The Pleasures of Tsundoku, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Book Piles
Antoine Wilson on the Power of the Teetering Stack
Recently, while moving several piles of books (31 titles) from the floor to another place on the floor to make space for my office chair, I experienced a moment of clarity during which I felt like I had arrived at the end of a manic episode and was confronting the aftermath.
Hoarders have been known to describe how seemingly insignificant detritus—an old cup, a yellowed newspaper, a toothbrush—are so meaningful to them that they couldn’t possibly be thrown away.
I, too, was capable of justifying the presence of each of my individual piled up volumes. There was Thomas Bernhard’s Gathering Evidence. Purchased on the recommendation of a friend, begun at some point, set aside not because not good but because quietly usurped, knowing that someday I would get back to young Thomas on his bicycle. The usurper? Javier Marías’s Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear. I wanted to soak in Marías for a little while, but apparently not long enough to finish. Next, Edith Grossman’s translation of Don Quixote, awaiting comparison to the only other one I’d read, Tobias Smollett’s. And adjacent in stack and century, Tristram Shandy, half-finished, waiting for the right mood to strike. Shonagon’s The Pillow Book, uncracked—a purchase inspired by Suzanne Buffam’s A Pillow Book. Bergman’s The Magic Lantern, just begun, which I picked up because Dorthe Nors mentioned it somewhere, and, below that, her story collection Wild Swims…
Other stacks contained more yet-to-be read novels by authors I loved, books bought for research, various computer programming guides, more than one how-to book on writing, an excess of belles lettres, journals, books by friends, and, perhaps the most pathological and well-represented category, various iterations of the book I had to buy to magically solve the problems in whatever project I was currently working on.
I’d purchased all of these books, having been unable to resist jacket copy at the front table of my local indie, Diesel Bookstore, or having ordered from them over the phone after reading a particularly fetching tweet from, say, Adam Moody, or having tracked down some footnoted reference to a used book seller online, or having clicked it to my house via bookshop.org, or—I hang my head in junkie shame—having impatiently Bought It Now from the devil himself.
At least one pile had migrated from the sofa, a group of titles at-hand for a class I was planning. But the others? I looked around. There was nowhere left for them to go—no space left on my end table (56 titles) or on the counter on either side of my standing desk (49 titles), and the few shelves not holding cameras or computer equipment were full (27 titles). The den was overflowing already (over 1,000), even after repeated attempts at culling to make space for new arrivals. In our bedroom, my nightstand stack (41, with an overflow pile of 23) had once toppled in the night thanks to a myoclonic jerk of my sleeping arm, waking my wife, who thought it was an earthquake.
An outside observer bearing witness to this largely unread accumulation of books might have seen it as the fallout of a kind of bibliomania, but the truth was that when I examined each volume individually, I genuinely felt that it was only a matter of time before I cracked it open and started—or, more likely, resumed—reading it.
I had tried to stop, had tried to force myself to read only one book at a time. It worked exactly once—the book was War and Peace—and then I was back to my old habits of dipping in and out of narratives, carrying books from room to room, leaving stacks behind me everywhere. To friends, I joked that I was in the middle of fifty books. To myself, I pretended that I’d decided to read them all as one big book.
Salvation came, as it often does, in the form of a word: Tsundoku, Japanese for the tendency to buy books and let them pile up around the house unread. When I stumbled across it, I felt as if someone had reached across the Pacific to shake my hand.
Tsundoku dates from the Meiji era, and derives from a combination of tsunde-oku (to let things pile up) and dokusho (to read books). It can also refer to the stacks themselves. Crucially, it doesn’t carry a pejorative connotation, being more akin to bookworm than irredeemable slob.
Now I use it like a get-out-of-jail-free card.
Instead of castigating myself over new purchases, or for not clearing enough shelf space for the books I already have, or for any other venal book-acquiring sin, I tell myself that I’m “practicing tsundoku.”
“That’s not a pile, it’s a tsundoku,” I say to my wife, the magic word transforming the stack into something unshackled from negative associations, into what I see when I look at it, a tower of potential reading experiences.
It’s a comfort knowing that there are others out there like me, that we have been around for a long time, here and on the other side of the planet, fellow impulse-purchasers, novel half-abandoners, aspirational-title-acquirers—brothers and sisters of the teetering stack. That the haphazard placement of titles around the house is not a mess, but an invitation to serendipitous rediscovery. That the seeming randomness of individual piles is not disorganization, but a potential generator of illuminating juxtapositions.
Lately, I’ve been taking delight in a specific pleasure afforded by tsundoku: Pulling a book out from the middle of a stack, reading a single chapter, or a story, or a passage, and replacing it on top, where it will soon find itself covered by another book—probably newly purchased—to await the day I discover it again, liberate it, and crack it open to continue where I left off.