If you are one who finds yourself drawn to the printed page, then you are likely familiar with a certain kind of experience.
You know what it is to be walking through the isles of your local bookstore, or being inexplicable pulled through the doors of a secondhand shop you discovered in your vacation locale, or stopping fixated at the bookseller’s booth on the corner.
You pick a volume up, turn it over a few times, set it down, try another. You read the summary printed on the back cover, maybe even the first few lines on page one. You find yourself wanting to read the whole first page, but you have the rest of your day to get on with.
You close the book and look at the front cover with a sense of apprehension. You like the way it feels in your hand and the thought of putting it back where you found it gives you a sense of defeat. You make up your mind, step back, and walk away. The book is no longer in your hand, but tucked securely under your arm. It follows you to the register, then out to your car, then at last through the front door of your home. It finds its final resting place as you set it on top of the growing stack in your bedroom, or slip it into one of the last remaining spaces in your nearly filled bookshelf. You think to yourself that you’ll likely have to buy a new set of shelves before long, but you walk away satisfied with today’s purchase. You haven’t read the last eight books that you brought home in the same fashion, but you know it was worth it anyways.
If this ritual sounds familiar to you, congratulations! You’re an artist. More specifically, you are a master practitioner of the Japanese art known as “tsundoku.”
The Art Of Tsundoku
Doku comes from a verb that can mean “reading,” while tsun originates from tsumu – meaning “to pile up.” In essence, the piling up of materials for reading. Professor Andrew Gerstle, teacher of pre-modern Japanese texts at the University of London, has said “The phrase ‘tsundoku sensei’ [master of tsundoku] appears in text from 1879… Which is likely to be satirical.” But even if the word was initially coined as a clever play on words, countless individuals may have found a very serious sense of identity under its umbrella through the century and a half that has come after.
One thing is for sure, none of us are alone in our individual practice of “tsundoku.” Better known words like “bibliophile” – to be a lover of books – or “bibliomania” – the passionate enthusiasm for collecting and possessing books – have always been around to help us define ourselves and our attraction to reading. But there is something uniquely satisfying about knowing there is a word for that specific experience of building those stacks of unread treasures.
Why Do We Love Collecting Books So Much?
What is it about “tsundoku” that makes it so irresistible to so many of us? We live in an age of electronic reading. Readable content is available at our fingertips for instant download on a host of lightweight, portable devices. Many global changes are calling for elimination of wastefulness of all kinds, and rising generations seem to be shifting mindsets from rampant materialism to careful minimalism. Mastery of “tsundoku” would more likely be seen as the collecting of the unnecessary, space-taking, and redundant by many of these changing views.
Perhaps in these times of great change, we need a reminder of the familiar. For us, it simply takes the weight of a printed book in our hands and the smell of turning pages to clear our heads and remind us of our place in the world that turns around us. In an era of technology and convenience, we might fear for the future of our hard-bound companions. Building a collection ensures a lasting legacy for the printed word. If most of the books are unread, even better! We all sleep peacefully knowing that we will never run out of new reading.
As long as there are books to buy, “tsundoku” as an art will surely continue to be perfected. Do you consider yourself an artist in collecting books? Does the concept of “tsundoku” resonate with you? Why do you love collecting books? Feel free to share with us, we’d love to hear from you.
Written by Zoe Freeman