Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

The art of buying books and never reading them

Imagine you’re in your favourite bookshop, buying a brand-new book. After browsing for what felt like an age, you’ve finally chosen the perfect book to add to your library – and whether it’s a romance, a mystery, or, perhaps, a bit of science fiction, you’re just desperate to start reading.

When you get home, you’ll place your book on your shelf, on your desk, or perhaps with all the others – on the sad pile of untouched, unopened literature that you’ve spent your precious pennies on but are yet to read a word of. You probably don’t have the money or the space to leave books unread and yet you do it anyway.

This is the strange and wasteful art of tsundoku. Referring to ‘a person who owns a lot of unread literature’, the word originates in late-nineteenth century Japan, in its Meiji era. However ancient the term it beautifully explains a strange phenomenon in which many of us are unwittingly participating when we dump our new books onto their growing mound of neglect. So, it seems that tsundoku is a problem that has spanned both centuries and continents.

They might simply be so keen that they purchase more books than they have time to read

Someone guilty of tsundoku might have bought textbooks for school or university that seem so boring it radiates through the unopened cover. They might simply be so keen that they purchase more books than they have time to read. But why do we do this? Why waste space, trees, and money?

The answer is illusive. Admittedly, it’s hard to resist the promise of a story that changes your worldview as it unravels, the vital knowledge a book provides for your course, and even the laughs you get from a hilarious autobiography. Even the visual appeal of a brand-new book can lead to the purchase of yet another to add to the hoard you’re currently amassing in your bedroom.

It’s simply illogical that we purchase books that we have every intention of reading and then just leave them unopened and unloved. What’s more, tsundoku might have a negative environmental impact. Whilst there isn’t anything wrong with still buying physical books to read and enjoy, leaving them alone does seem wasteful, especially in a time of increased environmental awareness.

Although as a collective we are buying more physical books, it seems many of us fall short on the reading front

Ultimately, I think the reasons behind tsundoku can be compared to the reasons why physical books, in general, remain popular in an age of increasing digitisation. Though libraries across the country have been struggling, book sales remain buoyant, with income increasing by 5% in 2017 versus 2016. The eBook, on the other hand, has suffered at the hands of ‘screen fatigue’, with UK sales tumbling by 17%.

Although as a collective we are buying more physical books, it seems many of us fall short on the reading front. However, it speaks volumes that there has been a resurgence in UK book sales. The intention, the spark, the curiosity to read a book is ever present – and whilst this has led to an increase in book sales, it can also be blamed as the cause of tsundoku.

Perhaps there is just something about holding a book in your hands – to feel its pages and crack its spine, to highlight or not to highlight – that means the eBook will never take over. As people still buy, read, and enjoy books all over the world, there will also be those who succumb to tsundoku. To many, it might seem sad that books sit unread in hundreds of rooms, in thousands of untouched stacks. Maybe some solace can be taken from the fact that in the face of the eBook, the greatest potential threat to bookshops, the humble paperback remains as popular as ever.


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