A tsundoku problemThe late associate professor of English Shailendra Kumar Singh was one unique book collector. He would spend most of his earning from teaching on books. At times, when his savings weren’t sufficient enough, he would sell land to sustain his book-buying habit—a habit so egregious that it continued long after his failing eyesight incapacitated him to even read the titles of books. No wonder he left behind thousands of books honeycombed in his one story building.
The late associate professor of English Shailendra Kumar Singh was one unique book collector. He would spend most of his earning from teaching on books. At times, when his savings weren’t sufficient enough, he would sell land to sustain his book-buying habit—a habit so egregious that it continued long after his failing eyesight incapacitated him to even read the titles of books. No wonder he left behind thousands of books honeycombed in his one story building.
I am not a book collector like Singh was. Nor do I buy books as compulsively as he did. Still, I have amassed quite a few books. While rearranging them on the shelves the other day it struck me that many of them (numbering in the hundreds) are unread. This pointed to a problem, which the Japanese word ‘tsundoku’ captures perfectly, of buying and stocking a large number of books but never getting around to reading them.
Had I been tsundoku-ing without realising it?
The unread books that were staring at me like a jilted lover evidently said that I was.
That’s strange, given that I used to think, especially when I had just started to read, that one shouldn’t keep the books one hasn’t read in one’s library. I was so firm in this belief that I had once sold back James Joyce’s Ulysses—a tome of a novel considered one of the best novels of the twentieth century—to the bookshop at half the price, as I hadn’t been able to wade through more than 21 pages of it, and bought another book—Cogito, Ergo Sum by Descartes—with the money.
But that was when I had all the time in the world but no money to splurge on books. I would scrounge what little money I could and buy books, mostly hefty ones, like War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Executive Orders by Tom Clancy, Chesapeake by James A Michener, The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky, so that I could read longer for more or less the same amount of money spent. Around that time, I read ravenously to improve my English. Still later, when I realised how little read I was, I read even more and diversely, clocking eight, nine hours a day, to make up for the childhood years that I spent without reading books. As long as my book reading habit outpaced my book buying, I didn’t have the tsundoku problem.
The problem, I think, set in when I started to have more money to spend on books. That is, when I started to earn a living. Now I didn’t have to cajole or beg anyone for money and could buy whatever book took my fancy. Naturally, the number of books in my collection grew quite rapidly. But earning a living did have a toll on my reading, as I could give only so many hours to books. Gradually, my reading failed to keep pace with my book buying. This problem, as far as I am concerned, was further compounded by the arrival of smart phones. While earlier I used to take out a book and read when travelling on a bus, waiting for someone in a restaurant or accompanying someone in hospital, I now take out my mobile phone and either read the stuff saved on the Pocket or scroll through the social media feeds.
That’s how the books started to pile up, unread.
But I wouldn’t have been able to do anything about the problem, even if I had realised that I was hoarding books, rather than reading them, because I would have been still buying books anyway.
After all, can you resist buying a book that a friend, an equally voracious reader, recommends as a must read? Can you resist buying a book which you had been searching for long if you found it serendipitously while browsing in a bookshop? Can you resist buying a book when you are at its launch function? Can you resist buying a book that seduces you with its beautiful cover? Can you resist buying a book set in the place where you have come a-visiting? Can you resist buying books on the list of the best books of the year? Can you resist buying books that are being sold for cheap at a book fair? And can you resist buying a book that is being raved about unanimously in the press?
But am I worried that I am tsundoku-ing too much?
No. The unread books will always act as furniture, giving a literary touch to the home. More importantly, I can be sure that half of the books, if not more, that I have failed to read, will be read by my wife (one of the benefits of having a reader wife!). And as AE Newton famously wrote, “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.”