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My apartment has become a book storage facility that also happens to have a bed and a washing machine.
In the past week alone I’ve bought The Consolation of Philosophy, Can Wrong Be Right, The Critique of Pure Reason, The Best American Essays of 2022, The Tender Bar, and Other Inquisitions. This is to say nothing of the knee-high tower of titles I’ve amassed over the past few months, which ranges from a Tom Wolfe novel to a book called Healing Back Pain (I don’t have back pain). Oh, and there’s my Kindle library, which, if alchemized into physical form, would fill an entire wall in the Hogwarts library.
I know what you’re thinking: What a voracious reader! How impressive!
Easy there. I said I have all these books—not that I’ve read them. I’ve finished a grand total of two books this year. At my current pace, controlling for cognitive decline, I’ll finish all of the books in my collection by the year 2140.
Sometimes I look around at the stacks of books scattered across my apartment and feel like something is wrong with me.
It turns out the Japanese have a word for my malady: tsundoku. (This is a real word, not someone referring to a number grid puzzle while they’re sneezing.) The term first popped up in Japanese texts in the late 19th century and was evidently used as some kind of playful jab at a teacher who had a bunch of books but didn’t read them. Personally, I don’t find it all that funny. But I guess I do feel seen. It’s something of a comfort that, two centuries ago and halfway across the world, revered educators were also violating fire code with their piles of unread pages.
Folks in the modern age aren’t immune, either. A 2018 New York Times editorial struck a chord with hundreds of readers who share this hoarding habit (with the exception of one notably enraged commenter named “RvB”). The BBC, Inc Magazine, and even Apartment Therapy have all published articles on the topic. Tsundoku seems to transcend time and space.
It’s not a quality I’m proud of. Sometimes I feel like I’m LARPing as an intellectual, like a “classic rock fan” who wears Led Zeppelin t-shirts and thinks “Stairway to Heaven” is an evangelical youth group. All the unopened books on my shelf feel like an indictment of my identity.
But that feeling is fleeting. It’s hard to feel shitty when you’re surrounded by thousands of years of human experience, an array of portals into the minds and lives of people who lived in the Roman empire, or survived the Holocaust, or destroyed the housing market. There’s a certain weight to it. I may not have read all of the pages—or even half of them—but there’s something about the proximity alone, the aura, that imbues the space with a kind of significance. It’s a reminder that the world is larger than the living room walls.
You also never know when you might happen to open a book and stumble upon the words that change the course of your existence.
A few years ago I was working a job I needed desperately to leave. Maybe I’ll become a product manager, I thought, without understanding much of what that meant. It sounded cool. I started doing the things that people who want to be product managers do. One day, when I was sitting in my room feeling particularly uncertain and directionless, the bright orange cover of Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck caught my eye. I happened to open the book to a section about the importance of choosing the right problems. Manson’s view is that any path we pursue will come with problems; rather than making decisions based on what sounds good about a given path, he argues, we should make decisions based on what problems we’re most willing to endure.
This seemed relevant, so I Googled “what sucks about being a product manager” and found lists of horrifying problems. Product management, it turned out, was not the path for me.
Armed with a new algorithm for evaluating the best way to upend my life, I landed on a path I never would have considered: sales. The strategy worked. It turned out that I liked selling stuff, and I was good at it. Within a few years, I had paid off my credit card debt, bought a business, and built a life that I didn’t wake up dreading. I mostly attribute this to some words I read in a book.
Books, for me, represent possibility. The possibility of a new way of thinking, a new set of ideas, a new story to see myself in. The possibility of hope. The possibility of reading that one sentence that stretches across space and time to strike such a specific chord of shared humanity that it sticks with you forever. These possibilities, I find, are worth the price of a Chipotle burrito.
My accumulation will continue to outpace my consumption, and I’m telling myself that that’s okay. I’d rather be surrounded by too many books than too many TVs, or too many hairbrushes. One of these days, in one of these books, I’ll stumble across another sentence or paragraph that changes my life. I’ll laugh and be grateful, once again, for my literary suggestibility.
So maybe my tsundoku isn’t a malady after all. Maybe it’s a gift.
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