Essay: Buy books; don’t worry about reading them

Updated on Aug 26, 2021 07:32 PM IST

The Japanese word tsundoku refers to the habit of buying books and letting them pile up, unread. While the sight might fill you with guilt, perhaps it is best to view those piles as gifts that will yield their wisdom when the time is right

So much to read; so little time. (Shutterstock)
So much to read; so little time. (Shutterstock)
BySuhit Kelkar

The Japanese have a term for it: tsundoku. The soft-sounding, beautiful word means buying books and letting them pile up, unread. If you bring the word into your interiority, you find some sort of complex, mostly unpleasant sequences and volleys of emotions that the sight of unread books conjures up. Here, I imagine you nodding to yourself. Many people are in a state of tsundoku. I am, too. Come to think of it, tsundoku reminds me of sedimentary rocks, in that they are layers and layers building upwards, becoming harder and harder.

While writing this essay, at one point my gaze meanders over my bookshelves as well as the book piles that have rendered some items of furniture unusable. (It’s not so bad; I’ve seen some whoppers in other people’s houses.) Book spines gaze back mutely, inscrutably, from their neat or unkempt huddles. My gaze moves on to its intended destination or something else, and I realize that I have done this with my eyes many times before, this registering something unconsciously: the title of a book, wrapped in an intention that is murky. Murky shmurky. An egg has been stowed away in the mind. It will lie there in the darkness, until what’s in it has grown enough to peck its way out. And the newly hatched bird of thought will chirp in my own voice (I think I read this in some poem). Then what I knew theoretically and generally will be realized or reinforced; my conscious mind is not in charge of me. What is in charge, works through me; or, if I suppress it, it acts unbeknownst to me or even at cross purposes to my idea of what I am, what I can be, can do, want, need. Then perhaps this tsundoku, which is architected in one sense, is not consciously intentional. Maybe tsundoku extends to the mind, too. Except there the piles are not of books but buried parts of oneself, demanding to be read or felt or acknowledged or healed or forgiven or emboldened or transformed, so that they can be loved by oneself and others.

But e-books are out of sight, so perhaps out of mind. With e-books becoming mainstream, tsundoku has moved online for me. So, occasionally, I’ll page through my e-book catalogue with the hope to seed some of the titles in some unacknowledged part of the mind, which will hopefully produce them when they are needed. Please don’t ask why I can’t just Google what I need to know. Sometimes we don’t know what it is that we need.

According to a non-bylined BBC article, in Japan the word tsundoku “does not carry any stigma”. And this, despite the cramped living spaces there, and the obsession with cleanliness and neatness. But this is India, I grew up in a rural area, and I’ve seen something of being hard up and without hope, and come from a thrifty background, and am suspicious of indulgence. For me, there is an obsession, an emotionality, a feeling of guilt around accumulating that even faintly suggests hoarding. I have brought that mentality to the acquisition of books, too. It’s thawing, though, which may be why I have tsundoku. Whew. Tsundoku as my post-Liberalization excess. As I say it to myself, it sounds totally true and at the same time wholly hooey. Pick one, Manmohan!

That great obsession, the acquisition of books (Shutterstock)
That great obsession, the acquisition of books (Shutterstock)

Maybe joining a library helped me. With a little poetic license, one could call not only one’s own unread piles but also libraries and bookstores quiet shrines to tsundoku; book issuers or purchasers are their devotees, carrying small parts of that larger tsundoku back home, taking part in the whole, communing with it. But that’s just me; I was surprised to know that libraries, those mountains of unread books, evoked volcanic emotions in other people.

In Always Narrating: The Making and Unmaking of Umberto Eco, an essay by Costica Bradatan in the Los Angeles Review of Books, we read: “[Umberto] Eco’s personal libraries were the stuff of legend; the one in Milan allegedly had around 30,000 volumes.” Eco knew he could never read all those books. Elsewhere, Nassim Nicholas Taleb says Eco had realized that “a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones... the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.” There’s a lot to unpack here, including the feeling of humility brought on by unread books, but one thing leaped at me. I suppose that in deploying Eco’s example, Taleb is speaking his own truth; that Taleb’s unread books look “menacingly” at him. You really think that if Eco had felt hurtful pangs when hoarding books, he would keep acquiring more and more, thirty thousand of them? At the textbookish rate of one book a day, 30,000 days is roughly 82 years. The cumulative mental anguish would have driven Eco over the edge. If there’s anything philosophy teaches us, it’s that most people avoid unpleasant feelings and seek pleasant ones. So, I think Eco revelled in tsundoku, more than most of us do, and for a richer tapestry of reasons than ours. Why shouldn’t we, too, share in that revelry?

But Bradatan, as well, seems to express distress about books he will never be able to read: “The essence of the library is its limitlessness. The more time you spend in it... [you realize] you will never know it all. The revelation of your finitude comes with embarrassing pain. And when you have realized that you cannot live without that pain, your perverse relationship with the library has reached its climax”. (Makes you wonder what Bradatan’s personal bookshelves look like. I don’t know him, but think he’s read every book on his shelves, or at least dipped into it for reference.)

For some reason, I am reminded of an incident from many years back when I was a young reporter, having a drinking session with a much older and more experienced newspaper columnist. We were steeped in Old Monk, when he tried to jolt my indisputable and probably unbearable smugness by saying to me, “You’ve got to know everything!” I said something to the effect that I had no such inclination. At which he got up wordlessly, went to the toilet, and then I heard sounds of vomiting. I knew, then, that I was on to something. I eventually shed, at least partially, the smugness. What I retained was my ease with the fact that my knowledge might expand but would always be finite. Here I am not drawing parallels between that tormented columnist, and Taleb and Bradatan. But neither am I encouraging or endorsing seeing your unspoken or unacknowledged fears and obsessions in a library or unread pile.

Instead, the possibility exists to practise mudita – “sympathetic joy, or being happy for another’s happiness”, according to Christiane Wolf, writing for the website, Lion’s Roar. I would rather rejoice in the vastness of bookish wisdom, too large for any non-omniscient mind to encompass, a vastness which has something, probably, for every reader, from poetry to the municipality’s development rules. How nice to have these kindred subjects, words and bricks, rub shoulders in a pile.

So, let me now browse my unread pile: poetry from India and abroad, literary novels, political nonfiction, business books that I am supposed to review, history, biography, books on Buddhism, even a Jungian analysis of Indian society. All unread or partially read, true, but all filled with potential, all there for me unconditionally. Seen wide-angle, this pile represents a wider range of interests, intentions and aspirations than I had acknowledged in myself. Now that I have, the unread pile is a source of encouragement, of hope, and self-respect -- and by extension, so is the library or bookstore, the wholeness, of which the books I have read -- and left unread -- are a part. Mudita makes you feel connected to others; it is also among the things that make you happy.

Essay: Buy books; don’t worry about reading them
Essay: Buy books; don’t worry about reading them

One recent afternoon, I was scouring my untidy bookshelves for books that I wanted to give away to a group of friends I was meeting later. My motive was not only making space for more books, but also giving gifts for their own sake. I also reached for a few copies of my own chapbooks to give away. Underneath the small stack of my chapbooks, I found, lightly covered with dust, Comfortable with Uncertainty: 108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion by Pema Chodron. It was a book I had forgotten I had bought, it was also the book I absolutely needed at the time, and I had found it while not even looking for it. An eerie coincidence, a situation that I cannot now resist analysing. Here, Jungians will doubtlessly point to synchronicity, or coincidence that has a meaningful, numinous quality; others will say that the unconscious part of my mind, working in mysterious ways, had led me to that book’s location -- that stowing away the book may represent a promise I had made to myself, like a squirrel’s stash, or a time capsule buried in the mind and remembered when I needed its precious contents. Buddhists will speak of karma: I got the book I needed when I was looking to give others the selfless gift of books that might nourish them. Are these three viewpoints mutually exclusive? Your viewpoint may be different still. The point is, I had found the book at exactly the time when I was yearning for the nectar that it turned out to contain. Would that have been possible without tsundoku?

Suhit Kelkar is an independent journalist. He lives in Mumbai.

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