Do you have a guilty pleasure habit of maintaining piles of books you intend to read? Well, there’s actually a name for that! It’s tsundoku. Here, you’ll learn how to pronounce it, its definition, how to use it in a sentence, the psychology behind this syndrome that plagues book lovers, and how to overcome it (if you choose, since reading books does have life-changing benefits).
This is something that’s been on my mind for a while now. About a month ago, I came home from my local library’s used book sale with three grocery store-sized paper bags full of books — they are $1-2 and IMPOSSIBLE to resist. I get an inexplicable rush when I see a coveted title and know it’s all mine for a minor donation, kind of like that joyful feeling of visiting a Scholastic book fair as a child, but better because it’s SO CHEAP.
After this visit to the library sale, my bookshelves ended up full to the brim, yet I’ve still been adding more books to my collection since then.
For example, I’ve received a few advanced review copies (ARCs) of books from publishers to read for placement on this website; I’ve needed to buy specific books for my Rory Gilmore reading challenge; and I have an overload of Book of the Month credits I’ve wanted to use up. (And they just started letting members add up to 5 books to their books per month!)
See what I mean?! Things escalated quickly.
I had to remove a pile of my books from my bookshelf to place in a “to be read next” pile in my office just to make room on my bookshelves for the books I intend to read later. As you may expect from my description above, it’s a mix of new ARCs, older seasonal reads, and my next pick for The Rory Gilmore Book Club.
All that being said, it feels especially timely to talk about tsundoku.
I’ve seen and heard tsundoku pronounced with different variations. One thing is clear: the “t” is silent. Most commonly, I have heard it pronounced (the phonetic spelling) as “sun-doh-ku” and “soon-doh-ku.” The Cambridge Dictionary includes both as well.
Tsundoku Definition and Meaning
The Japanese word for books you pile up with the intent to read later is tsundoku. It’s a noun that originated in the late 19th century Meiji era. It’s a slang word that combined two other words as one: “tsunde-oku,” which means “to pile things up ready for later and leave,” and “dokusho,” which means “reading books.”
In English, tsundoku is generally considered to refer to an unread pile of books that one intends to read. In other words, it’s a habit of book buying or a hobby of book collecting.
Intent is key, as tsundoku is often confused with bibliomania, an English term that refers to book collection in a way more akin to hoarding, in which the collecting of books is the end goal, not the reading of them.
A few examples of tsundoku include a pile of books on your nightstand that you intend to read before bed, but you end up falling asleep first, and a pile of work-related books on your desk that are required reading, but you are too distracted by other work to read them.
It may sound like tsundoku is a bad thing, but it’s not necessarily bad.
Tsundoku, an unread pile of books, can benefit you in that you may more often have books accessible to you (and thus, you will likely read more overall), and you can choose from a variety of books to read at any given time based on your mood.
After all, reading is a very good thing with numerous benefits:
Tsundoku in a Sentence
Now that you know what tsundoku is, let’s use it in a few sample sentences:
- I’ve been meaning to read the tsundoku on my nightstand before bed.
- I have a tsundoku on my desk I need to read before the next work conference.
- I came home from the book sale with a tsundoku.
Tsundoku can be a good thing in moderation, but it can also become a syndrome once it reaches a certain point.
Tsundoku syndrome refers to the negative effects of having a pile of books you want to read but don’t. This can include things like overspending, overcrowding your space, and feeling overwhelmed or guilty with regard to these books.
In order to understand tsundoku syndrome, it’s important to first understand the psychology of book collecting. Book lovers love books — the sight of them, the feel of them, and even the smell of them:
“Oh, do you see the books? Feel it. Feels good, right? Now smell it. Nothing, nothing smells like that.”– Rory Gilmore on Gilmore Girls
Hey, there’s a reason that book-scented candles (my personal favorite one) SELL. They are as cozy and warm and comforting as your last five-star read. In fact, I tend to think many people collect books, in part, to attempt to recreate that satisfying feeling of falling in love with a book.
I mean, can you just imagine re-reading a magically immersive book like Harry Potter again for the first time?!
Personally, I have at least 100 titles in my tsundoku, and that’s only counting physical books. I do not tend to be a collector of things in most areas of my life, but as I mentioned, it can happen quickly with books since I get so many for free (as part of my job) and for rock bottom prices at used book sales.
In exploring tsundoku, I thought it would be interesting to hear from other book collectors about how many unread books they own and why. I polled my Instagram followers, and here’s generally what they had to say:
- The most common amount of titles in readers’ tsundoku was 20. Other common answers were 50 and 100. The range was 12 to 200.
- As for why readers keep a tsundoku, the most common answer (by far) was the same as mine: deals or sales they couldn’t pass up. Another common answer was that the sight of books “sparks joy,” so to speak. A few other unique reasons include receiving books commonly as gifts and supporting local bookstores visited.
While I didn’t specifically ask about intent to read the books in your tsundoku, I found it interesting how many readers remarked about their intent and ALL stated they had an intent to read all of their books, which is exactly the meaning and spirit of tsundoku.
This is not necessarily a tsundoku syndrome. Again, the syndrome refers to negative effects, like overspending, overcrowding your space, and feeling overwhelmed or guilty with regard to these books.
If you’re tsundoku has positive effects, as it does for many readers, then by all means, keep on keeping on!
But, if it is causing you problems, then consider the following “cures.”
How to “Cure” the Tsundoku Syndrome
If your “tsundoku” (pile of unread books) is causing negative effects like overspending, overcrowding your space, or making you feel overwhelmed or guilty, then consider things like organizing your books, imposing a book-buying ban, challenging yourself to read from your current collection, and selling or donating books.
Organize your books.
Sometimes it’s just the WAY your books are arranged that is stressing you out. If it’s too much, too cluttered, or otherwise stressful to see, consider organizing it before you do anything else more drastic.
Personally, I removed (and placed somewhere else) my “to be read next” books from my shelves to make room for my most recent book additions in order to keep my reading corner neat and tidy.
Limit your buying of new books.
Many avid readers commonly impose “book buying bans” on themselves for a variety of reasons, from financial to clearing the clutter and beyond.
You can go all in and stop buying ANY new books or limit yourself however you see fit. For example, perhaps you will still buy new audiobooks since it’s a different medium.
Read from your current collection only.
It’s also common for avid book collectors to read ONLY from their current collection to reduce their tsundoku. An added benefit is that you will force yourself to read all those backlist titles you’ve been meaning to read for a long time.
If this sounds right for you, then you may also want to search for some reading challenges dedicated to it — it’s not uncommon, and you would gain the support of others in similar situations.
Sell or donate some books.
Lastly, if you really want to cure your tsundoku fast, then consider selling or donating some of your books. While it pains me to do this, sometimes I do it too, most often when the sight of my tsundoku becomes overwhelming to me.
Then, I force myself to admit what books I should probably skip for good.
Now you know that your unread pile of books actually has a name — tsundoku! It’s important to remember that these are books the collector intends to read, and the reasons for keeping piles can vary from being compelled by sales to buy them to simply loving the sight of books.
This simple joy, and the act of reading too, have literally life-changing benefits, but if your tsundoku is stressing you out, then you may want to consider some making some changes, like donating some books or committing to reading only the books you already own.
How many books are in your tsundoku and why? Share it in the comments below.