I have just been reading about the excellent Japanese word “tsundoku”, which essentially means buying books only to let them pile up unread. This is such a common affliction I’m surprised the term hasn’t entered the English language.
My own case is instructive: When I moved in with my wife, our two libraries were combined, opening up an entire other set of groaning shelves to me. Murakamis; Mitchells, Mishimas, among many others. It didn’t stop me. I read some, and kept on buying books.
Every Christmas, parents and friends bought me enough books to easily last me until the following year; It didn’t stop me. I read some, read some of my wife’s – and kept buying books.
I joined my local library, which has a weirdly good selection of modern scifi and kids’ books. It didn’t stop me. I borrowed some, I read the Christmas books and my wife’s books, and I kept buying books.
I borrowed books from friends at work who I discovered were secret scifi fans; It didn’t stop me. I borrowed books from them, and from the library, and I read the Christmas books and my wife’s books, and I kept buying books.
I joined an expensive private library to do my writing, a London institution that boasts the most glorious collection I’ve ever seen. It didn’t stop me. I borrowed books from friends, and from the local library, and from the London library, and I read the Christmas books and my wife’s books, and I kept buying books.
I reached 35, realised that I was probably at least halfway through my natural lifespan and that I would never read all that was available to me from these endless sources: and I kept buying books.
It’s a sickness: I snatch 60s orange penguins from bookstore shelves without knowing I’m doing it: Wyndhams, Wells and Wodehouse. I have to have them. Then other strange little treats present themselves. Oxfam science fiction sections heave with treats round my way. You’d be amazed the glorious stuff with which fools are willing to part. I gobble it all up. I recognise the other sufferers of the sickness, a strange brew of rival hunters scouring the store shelves, seeking out treats. We size each other up, hiss, snatch what we can and scuttle back to our caves, cursing what finds may have been lost to our competitors.
I have banned TV from three months of the year in an effort to catch up with all these books. I agonise over all my favourite authors whose complete works I still have not read. I despair that can’t keep track of it all. It goes on and on. I’m a simple minded magpie without the time to back this habit up.
Still, it brings joy. Even with a baby girl drawing on the shelves, and ripping out the pages of books, and generally trying to destroy the library as best she can, it is a glorious thing to come home and see it there, challenging me, spurring me on. Perhaps the point is not to complete, to go on for ever, accumulating, hoping to reach a library of a definitive shape or size but knowing deep down that it could never, really, be enough. Maybe in my last years I’ll still be shuffling in there, heart a thumping, fingers twitching, ready to swoop, even as a century’s more reading waits untouched at home. I might never be cured, but I have a word that makes it sound less a sickness, more a way of life: tsundoku.