Why you should care
Because you won’t read this in a book … if you’re not reading your books.
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Part of an occasional series on unusual words we wish we had in English.
Nick Carraway slinks away from Jay Gatsby’s party. In the library he comes across a drunken, bespectacled fat cat who starts going off about the books lining the walls. “They’re real,” he slurs, pointing to them. “What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop too — didn’t cut the pages. But what do you want? What do you expect?” Uncut pages! If you know how books used to be manufactured, this means one thing and one thing only: Gatsby wasn’t much of a reader. After all, until they’re cut, book pages can’t be turned.
Collecting books and not reading them is, shall we say, textbook behavior. At least for some of you, and you know who you are. Suffering from the condition of racking up book purchases of $100, $200 or $1,000 without ever bending a spine? There’s a Japanese word for you.
Tsundoku: the acquiring of reading materials followed by letting them pile up and subsequently never reading them
Prognosis: terminal. Stats reveal that e-reading doesn’t hold a candle to the joy of reading a physical book. Although e-book sales jumped 1,260 percent between 2008 and 2010, 2.71 billion physical books were sold in the U.S. alone in 2015, according to Statista. That’s compared with the 1.32 billion movie tickets sold in the U.S. and Canada. As if every American were reading an average of more than eight books annually.
Certainly, it’s unlikely you’re going to hear the word tsundoku on the subway. But in a language where there are words for canceling an appointment at the last minute and the culture-specific condition of adult male shut-in syndrome, how can you be surprised? Other, similar words like tsūdoku (read through) and jukudoku (reading deeply) are in praise of sitting down with a book (doku means “to read”). But we think tsundoku is particularly special: Oku means to do something and leave it for a while, says Sahoko Ichikawa, a senior lecturer at Cornell University, and tsunde means to stack things.
We all know one or two people who have this expensive but arguably harmless addiction (harmless unless your surname is Collyer, that is). We might even look in the mirror and see it. Bibliotherapists Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin used to suffer from tsundoku, Elderkin says, before they began to cull their collections. They had a bad case: They stored books in poorly ventilated bathrooms and under the sink, “places where books, frankly, do not want to be,” Elderkin says. Perhaps there’s a reason for those of us still afflicted. Books can be a status symbol. Sometimes collectors acquire for nostalgia’s sake, says Susan Benne, executive director of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America. Perhaps they read the books in childhood or adolescence, or the book becomes a symbol of a certain time in their life. Let’s be real: It is probably The Catcher in the Rye.
Who could blame the Japanese for having this word? Murakami books are awfully pretty, but those suckers can be long. Does anyone really read them?