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Tsundoku: The purchase power of peace

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APRIL 20, 2023

“Buying books and reading them are two different forms of therapy,” jokes my high school best friend as we skip rocks across a human-made lake. This is part of our weekly ritual: We would meet up in front of our hometown’s Barnes & Noble, buy a few books to add to our unending reading lists and walk around the nearby lake, proudly gazing upon our newfound purchases, carelessly flipping through the lives of the characters who solely exist in these pages. We’d been doing this for years — our love for books was the backbone of our friendship. Soon enough, we’d started running out of space on our bookshelves for all these unread books, so we laid out a blanket by the reservoir’s banks and began to scroll through the Ikea website, lazily trying to find our perfect new bookcases.

Tens of these books line my shelves, both at college and at my parent’s house, to this day. They weigh on my conscience, the potential of the unread words dancing across my mind. Though my friend meant her therapy comment as a joke, I realized precisely how right she was once I discovered I had read roughly 30% of the books on my shelf. Though I love and have always loved reading, my consumption of books as an art form didn’t nearly match up to my consumption of them as a purchasable good.

From the moment my tiny hands could trace out the shapes of letters and words, I have loved reading. The art of storytelling has always been one of the greatest loves of my life — both the reading and creating of stories. I’d always walk around with bruises on my knees and bumps on my head, as my nose was eternally glued to a page, and I’d often lose sight of where I was walking. Growing up, my favorite ciocia was my father’s close friend, who never failed to bring me a few books from her travels whenever she’d visit. She smelled of worn pages and ideas, and I credit her with my prevailing love for reading and writing. However, I mistakenly believed the wear and tear of the passion she gave me manifested itself as my near-sightedness and my boundless knowledge of the Percy Jackson series, and not as a new vehicle for my consumerism. 

Tsundoku is a Japanese word that perfectly encapsulates my problem. It describes the act of continuously purchasing books and, rather than reading them, letting them pile up in one’s home. The manuscripts then lay there, collecting dust and grime, slowly buried under new stories. 

The pieces began to fall into place. As relaxing and inspiring as I knew reading books to be, I found more instant gratification in the act of consumerism. In a culture that often celebrates materialism, I have found myself hoarding collections of unused things. As I aged into capitalism, I began to search for joy in the act of buying things rather than using them. The act of purchasing acts as a quick dopamine release, one that quickly becomes addictive. My book-buying tendencies led me to buy far more books than I could feasibly keep up, even as I consistently try to read them all. My materialism grew into the hoard of books I refused to let go of. Though my mother and I used to poke fun at my grandparents’ hoarding tendencies, the apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree.

There isn’t really a way to go back from this type of realization, so, as unpleasant as it was, I put a hold on my book-buying and began to work my way down my shelf. I made a list of all the novels I had lying around and separated them by genre, aiming to read a book or two a week. At an excruciatingly slow pace, I picked away at my fortress of unread literature. 

Recently, a friend mentioned that he can always tell if a person “reads” just by looking at their bookshelf. Even the most artfully curated shelves may be deceiving, he assures me. The “non-reader” will collect unrelated New York Times best sellers and social media hits — what you believe you should be reading. A reader will often follow a theme or, at least, have a significant percentage of titles that follow a theme. It’s not just the content of the books that may expose a non-reader but the manuscripts’ condition. Cracked spines, creased pages and faint, pencil-in ideas in the margins prove that a story has lived. Slowly, more and more of the volumes on my shelf are beginning to bear the marks of age and appreciation.

I could never lie and tell you that it’s easy to accept one’s materialistic tendencies and actively attempt to steer away from them. It takes a conscious effort and, at first, feels utterly upsetting. In the long run, however, it’s one of the most freeing things imaginable. Realizing tsundoku places the ideas back into books, centering the text within them as the sole source of their joy. As lovely as the smell of a new book is, it’s even more exceptional when there is only one source on your bookshelf.

Miriam Klaczynska writes the Thursday column on words that can't be translated into English. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter.

APRIL 20, 2023