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 sickness I’m surprised the term hasn’t more thoroughly penetrated the English language.
I myself have a bad case: When my wife and I first combined our libraries, an entire new set of groaning shelves were opened up 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, an 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 many resources: and I kept buying books.
I can’t help myself: 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, and I gobble it all up.
There are others suffering from the same disorder: both rivals and support group at the same time. They hover about my book shops, cursed by our shared physical manifestations of tsundoku – the hunched stance, twitching fingers, and urgently scanning eyes. Where we encounter each other at a shelf we hiss, bristle, then snatch what we can and scuttle away to our caves, ruing the finds that might have been.
I have tried to catch up my reading with my buying, banning TV from three months of the year and forsaking all the internet junk that once consumed so much of my time. Yet still the horizon grows more distant. Sometimes I despair at my mindless Magpie accumulation.
Still, most of the time it brings me joy. Even with a baby drawing on the shelves, ripping out pages , and generally trying to destroy my library as best she can, it is a glorious thing to come home and see the personal library there, disorderly, overflowing, daring me to conquer. Perhaps the point is not to complete it, but to go on accumulating for ever, to represent the ambition rather than the fact. Maybe in my last years I’ll still be shuffling into bookshops, heart a thumping, fingers twitching, ready to swoop, even as a century’s reading waits untouched at home.
I might never be cured, but now at least I have a word to define this affliction; better still, it has the ring less of a sickness, and more of a way of life: tsundoku.