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Tsundoku – Shelf life of Books

I remember the hush and the distinctive, musty smell when I crossed the dimly lit threshold. It was a sunny summer’s day, but inside the shop, the dark wooden shelves seemed to lean in from their walls and into the room, beckoning me to come further in. Just ahead, the walkway twisted in on itself into enticing burrows. Someone was playing the piano on the floor above, individual notes seeping through the 400-year-old floorboards to fill the room with their warm sound. Time seemed to have been waylaid there somehow: pooled behind an old rocking chair, meandering amongst stacks of books so high they functioned as walls. I was 17, on my very first visit to Paris, and I had just walked into a bookshop that would alter the course of my life—and my relationship with books—for ever.


Many book lovers have a story like this. Such encounters linger because the surroundings seem to reflect an inner, perhaps unfulfilled longing to be always surrounded by the comfort of our books, and the characters they contain. A good bookshop feels like a marvel, but also a home.

So moved was I by my own experience in Shakespeare and Company that it precipitated a shift from loving reading books, to loving the very act of book-buying itself. I became hooked on recapturing that feeling. From that moment on, in every new city I’ve lived in, I have been lured by the promise of each book I end up acquiring. I now own many hundreds of them.

The Japanese language has a word for such pickings: tsundoku. According to a BBC article about it, “doku” can be used as a verb to mean “reading”, while “tsun” originates in “tsumu”, a word meaning “to pile up”. In combination, then, tsundoku means acquiring reading material and having it pile up.

With tsundoku, it’s not that the person’s reading stops, but it decreases in inverse proportion to the gathering. Book-buying becomes an obsession. Like anything one might consider a collection, the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. Yet as the BBC article points out with tsundoku, while the intention to read the books one buys is genuine, the collection that amasses as a result is accidental.

Nonetheless, even if the concept of tsundoku describes over-collection by accident and not design, those afflicted by this book-mania must know that their collection will grow with each acquisition. I certainly know this when I enter yet another beautiful bookshop, emerging with my purchases hours later, face aglow with anticipation. What produces this supposed gap between awareness and action? And could the gap in fact be the reason?

At the end of the 19th century, Norwegian-American social theorist Thorstein Veblen articulated the theory of “conspicuous consumption.” This describes the upper-class habit of buying and using goods and services of a higher quality, price, or in greater quantity than was necessary—or even practical. Such consumption, Veblen reasoned, was driven by a desire not only to have, but to be seen to have.

Collecting books is a particular kind of consumption. Although reading is generally an individual activity, it unquestionably has a public face: looking at someone’s bookshelf tells you a lot about not only them, but sometimes what they want you to know too. Whether consciously or not, if tsundoku is a form of conspicuous consumption, then curating and displaying one’s books is just a more socially acceptable way to show off.

Nonetheless, there seems to be more at work in tsundoku than the mere feeding of a proprietary impulse. For me, at least, book-collecting represents a disposition towards optimism, a demonstration of hope that one day I will get around to reading them. They also bookmark—if you’ll excuse the pun—significant moments in life: a book that represented a friendship, a book I bought on a whim in a second-hand shop in a city I loved. Every desired book is so alluring because it represents potential. Tsundoku is a demonstration of intent; a way of signalling to yourself, by way of your bookshelf, a future pleasure.

By the year 2018, I had become a denizen of those very bookshelves that cast such a spell on me aged 17. Working as a live-in “tumbleweed” volunteer at Shakespeare and Company, I stacked the bookshelves by day and slept on the floor between them at night, alongside Aggie the cat. It felt like the logical end point of my insatiable tsundoku: as though I had almost become a book myself. My life certainly felt like a story. While living in the shop, the endless days spent talking about books and recommending them to others only heightened the fervour. I gathered more than ever.

When I eventually left the bookshop I had called home for a year, my books came with me. Having crammed every nook and cranny of the little attic I had moved in to, I remember wondering how I would transport them all—but never did I question whether it was a good idea to try. Now I have a room of my own for the first time, I am finally finding a place for them to settle.

It seems important to acknowledge that independent bookshops are under threat, squeezed from all sides by digital competitors who can sell hardbacks for a cut price or e-books for next to nothing. Does a tsundoku practitioner whose formative experiences were forged in such places have a responsibility to support them? For what it’s worth, I tend to think so. A digital version of tsundoku, while no doubt exhibiting a similar obsession, might help create a world with fewer bookshops in it—and fewer books on our shelves, too.

Essay/Article commissioned by: TDLM Editorial

Written by: Sadie Hale
[Literature; Freelance Writer; Environmental Issues]

Graphics/Art/Illustration by: TDLM Design Team

‘Tsundoku – Shelf life of Books’ First Published in The Daily Life Magazine on January 27, 2023


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