“Tsundoku” (or the soul reaching towards infinity…?)

There are piles of books around our house, all the shelves are full. My husband built a new shelf six months ago and it was full within a week. Partly because I won a whole box of books from Bookshambles; which is about as far ranging a ‘book discussion’ podcast you could wish for and which has led to bookish acquisitions above and beyond this best thing I ever won. Partly because I moved all the piles onto the shelf, only to begin the piles afresh. I may have a ‘problem’ with the book thing – if it’s a problem at all. It’s not a problem on a par with having piles of clothes you never wear, but that’s my opinion, we can agree to differ.

Excuse the spider webs, I was reading…








However, we are in peril of being suffocated by books. I had to stop reading the book pages in the papers because the lists of ‘books I really neeeed’ were becoming so long I’d have no chance of reading them all in my lifetime. Still, these reviews occasionally turn up in a pile of old papers we acquire for fire-lighting and pottery purposes, and I can be found sitting on the floor by a cold woodburning stove, reading the reviews, shivering with a cold cup of tea by my side. It’s almost like the books seek me out.

Of course I am completely susceptible to suggestion when it comes to books. Even if I do successfully avoid the papers, there are other means by which the books find me, and invegel themselves onto my shelves. They pop up on Twitter and Instagram, they sneak in via emails from Unbound, Waterstones and the lovely independent bookshop in town, Mostly Books. Only the other night I was having a quick look at Twitter and within five minutes there were two tweets that fired off my book buying trigger finger. Radio 4’s Book of the Week and the Book at Bedtime are fairly dangerous programmes. Book of the Week resulted in a rather large nature book buying spree in 2016. One reading from Amy Liptrott’s ‘The Outrun’ resulted in me  buying and reading the entire Wainwright shortlist, plus The Leaping Hare (and I still haven’t got to Meadowland). This has continued – and once I discovered the Caught By The River online shop it shows no sign of stopping.

I went into Mostly Books with Alex the other day, supposedly to spend his birthday book token, swearing I would ‘just have a look’. I walked round with three books in my arms (it’s quite a small shop) for a while. The sensible (?) part of my brain eventually won out and I bought only one (The Power, by Naomi Alderman, which I also recall hearing part of as I dozed off one night…see above). But I’ll be going back for that Paul Auster doorstop, and Francis Spufford’s ‘On Golden Hill’.

I’ve tried that trick of not buying ‘actual books’ and instead getting them on a Kindle. It didn’t work. I now have both a pile of ‘real’ books, the ones with lovely covers that have spoken to me in a bookshop or by other means, and the e-books bought on the train or while on holiday (at least the latter pile takes up hardly any space). 

So I am delighted that there is a word for this accumulation of reading matter. The Japanese have come up with, it a word to encapsulate a whole behaviour. They are so good at doing this, my favourite is ‘shirin-yoku’; forest bathing, being in the woods, feeling the good it’s doing you, getting closer to the trees. My second favourite is now ‘tsundoku‘ which, Wikpedia tells me:

originated as Japanese slang (積ん読) “tsun-doku”. 「積ん読」 came from 「積んでおく」 “tsunde-oku” (to pile things up ready for later and leave) and 「読書」 “dokusho” (reading books). 「積んどく」 “tsundoku” is a euphonic change of 「積んでおく」. It is also used to refer to books ready for reading later when they are on a bookshelf. As currently written, the word combines the characters for “pile up” (積) and the character for “read” (読).

(The characters for “pile up” and “read” would be a great tattoo for me, if I weren’t such a baby about needles). Once there is a word for something it’s a real thing, isn’t it? These are not just piles of papery things, these are books with a future purpose. Some of them may be in the pile for a while, some may be plucked out of it quite quickly. They will be entertainers, comforters, escape hatches, love affairs. Some will become old friends. 

I found this quote (from A Edward Newton) in the same Wikipedia article, which sums it up entirely for me: 

“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.”


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