All those unread books…


The Japanese have a word—tsundoku—for the habit of buying books only to let them pile up, unread. It’s a bad habit, and I’ve been cultivating it for at least 20 years.

One of my current piles looks respectable enough. The books are held neatly between bookends on top of a bookcase. But this arrangement is deceptive: they are books that were bought long ago and have still not found their proper place, either in the case or out at a charity shop. A second pile is an honest untidy stack on the bedroom floor, blocking the way to a cupboard. Yet another is a secret pile, seen only by myself—the nine titles tucked away in the ‘Unread’ category on my Kindle.

There’s quite a mixture of subject matter there—history, psychology, theology, literary criticism, poetry and fiction, along with a volume of Jeremy Clarkson’s proclamations that can only be described as ‘none of the above’.

Why do I let tsundoku take hold? What stops me getting through the piles? I feel I have some excuse: I read books in my working hours as an editor, so of course I don’t want to spend all my leisure time doing the same. So why do I keep buying them?

Much of the blame needs to be laid at the door of second-hand bookshops, which mesmerise me into collecting cheap and ‘really interesting’ stuff on a whim. Sadly, in my own less mesmerising living room, the magic often wears off. I now recognise fully that Culture & Society in Britain 1850–1890 was a mistake. So was Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. As for The Seven Basic Plots, with its 700 pages of densely packed type, I’m still convinced it will be a fascinating read, but so far it has seemed too big a mountain to climb.

It’s not that I never read in my spare time. I’ve made my way through lots of poetry in the last year or two—Tennyson, Larkin, Graves and Hardy—and I loved Robert Galbraith’s The Silkworm and The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher. But these books have ‘jumped the queue’, leaving the tsundoku piles to sink further into neglect.

I think it’s time to break the habit. It’s clear that I don’t really want to read all these books. Over the next month I plan to read one chapter of each, keep the ones that still excite me and ruthlessly kick out those that now feel like a bit of a burden. There’s nothing like the happiness of being absorbed in a really good book—and if the Japanese haven’t got a word for that, they should have.


6 responses to “All those unread books…

  1. Keep the Bede. He’ll come back in fashion soon.

  2. I totally relate, and am as culpable as you (though maybe I don’t have quite so many!). Every now and then i proclaim a ‘book amnesty’ on myself, but then I wander into Waterstones and go all dreamy and fall into a chair at the cafe and i’m a gonner! Reading one chapter from each is a great idea. Think i’ll try that! #post40bloggers

  3. It’s nice to know I’m not alone. I haven’t even started my ‘one chapter’ read yet! Soon, very soon… 🙂

  4. That sounds very familiar, I may even have some of the same books. In some cases, I suspect it may represent some sort of belated attempt on my part to fill in the numerous gaps in my long-gone education – books I think I should once have read.
    I did manage to get my act together to take a couple of boxes of books to the charity shop a few months ago. I pointed out to the lady that I’d purchased many of them there and they were still stickered and perhaps could just go straight back on the shelves, but I was told Computer Wouldn’t Like It.
    Good luck with the one-chapter initiative and thank you for the new word.

    • Ah yes, I think there’s sometimes an element of ‘ought to read’ in my choices! Then the question has to be, ‘Who says I ought?’ Well done for the clear-out. Computers make life so much easier, don’t they? Hmmm….

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