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Tsundoku, or the Ghost Books That Are There (but You Won’t Read)


The precision of a Japanese expression describes how we’re unable to read all the books we’ve accumulated.

Any reader is faced, sooner or later, with the same problem: what to do with books that haven’t been read? What are we to do with those that we’ve left unread, like a trail of bookmarks marking only the place where reading was interrupted, there where our eyes had been?

Despite all our good intentions, many readers see such books with a mixture of pride and impatience, as the stacks grow in the rooms of our houses. Stacks of books can be pending a read, or simply objects in a very personal collection. All of this finds expression in the Japanese word, tsundoku.

According to the Open Culture website:

The word dates back to the very beginning of modern Japan, the Meiji era (1868-1912) and has its origins in a pun. Tsundoku, which literally means reading pile, is written in Japanese as 積ん読. Tsunde oku means to let something pile up and is written 積んでおく. Some wag around the turn of the century swapped out that oku(おく) in tsunde oku for doku (読) – meaning to read. Then since tsunde doku is hard to say, the word got mushed together to form tsundoku.

It might be simple to demonstrate through a simple statistical procedure that, although readers use all of their available time for reading, in reality they’ll still never be able to exhaust the volume of pages to which human understanding has been consigned.

The propensity of the moment – a secret intuition that drives us to lift a book from the bookstore shelf, and to integrate this book into the objects within our own domestic galaxies – to integrate it into a cumulative series of reading materials, often interrupted.

Cuban poet, José Lezama Lima, once affirmed that a good personal library isn’t composed of the books that we’ve read and then stored, without further ado, on the bookshelves. Rather, it’s also and above all, those jewels that wait each for their own moment, sometimes for years, until at last can take place that happy reunion with a reader.

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