Drowning in a tsundoku

12 Jun

There is a word in Japanese, they tell me, that means letting books pile up without reading them: tsundoku. I don’t speak Japanese, but it sounds appropriate, reminding me both of sudoku, something stressful and time-consuming, and tsunami, which is what happens when your to-read pile becomes unstable.

My to-read ‘pile’ is actually neatly shelved, so it’s not going to crush me under its physical weight, but I do sometimes feel oppressed by its metaphorical, almost moral weight. The other day a friend gave me a book, just to be kind – and it was kind, but if she had seen the state of my reading list, she might have decided that it was kinder not to.

Shelf of books

The Secrets of Alchemy has actually been wrongly shelved – I’ve read that one from cover to cover and it’s very good.

There is another Japanese term, KonMari, which is actually just a play on the name of the woman who invented it, Marie Kondo. This is both a method of tidying up / clearing out, and also a philosophy, that tidiness is next to happiness, as cleanliness is to godliness. I have to confess I’m a bit of a KonMari aficionado, and I’ve written about it before. l don’t follow her method to the letter (who does?) but I do fold my clothing according to her designs, and try to apply the rule of chucking out things that I don’t need and that don’t spark joy.

What Marie Kondo has to say about books is that if you’re never going to read them, you should get rid of them. That seems reasonable, although it requires a bit of honesty and self-knowledge to say which ones those are. (There’s at least one, probably more, in that picture.) The biggest difficulty arises with books that were gifts, or that you’ve agreed with someone that yes, you really must read. You feel bad discarding then, but just don’t want to read them enough to actually do it.

But my problem isn’t really the books I know I’ll probably never read, it’s the ones I fully intend to read. Even though I’m a fairly quick reader, and read every day, unfortunately the to-read pile seems to grow faster than I can get through it.

There are already so many good books, and people will keep writing new ones. As a writer, I’m guilty of that too, of course, so I can’t criticise too much. But it makes me nostalgic for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,* when you could literally read everything that was published in English, and probably in every other language, if you had the necessary skills. These days, 20 books are published every hour – and that’s just in the UK! No one is that good at speed reading.

One of the most delicious experiences of my year is choosing my summer reading material. In the past, I would go into Waterstones and take advantage of their 3-for-2 offer, coming out with a bag full of crisp, virgin paperback books, and a sense of delightful anticipation. More recently, the push by airlines towards our travelling with only an extra jumper under one arm and a toothbrush clutched in our fist has made this impractical. When you only have an overgrown briefcase to carry all your clothes and shoes for a month, you can’t afford to use up half the space on books. It might work if I was only going for a week, but I usually spend several weeks in Albania each summer, and I can get through a whole book just on the journey out.

So I’ve bought a Kindle. I’m not mad keen on the proprietary software (what’s wrong with epubs?) but it is the closest you can get to a proper book – no glare, no blue light disturbing your sleep patterns, no video ads popping up. And it only takes up the space of one book.

There are some disadvantages to going techno, though. The first is that it will not help me whittle down my shelf of physical books, unless I buy the same books as .mobi files, which I am loathe to do. (It feels too much like a waste.) The second is that I will no longer be a captive to whatever I have chosen to bring. Being abroad with nothing else to read, pre-ebooks, meant that I would read good, worthy, even difficult books, because that’s all there was in English. (I can read in Albanian, but not with much pleasure because there’s too much effort involved.) I read Anna Karenina that way, and even a Thomas Hardy novel – and I don’t even like Hardy’s novels.

I’m planning to download War and Peace onto my new Kindle, a book I once started but never finished, and I’ve already started reading the sample chapters, but what are the chances that I’ll keep reading it when my resistance weakens, and millions of other, easier books are available at the click of a button? Not good, I’d guess.

Anyway, I can let you know after the summer how I got on, maybe on a book review post.

I probably won’t be posting again until I’m in Albania now (ulp – summer’s getting very close!), so enjoy your holiday, if you’re taking one, or try to enjoy your work if you’re not, while I go off and experiment with my new book substitute.


*There is actually a word for being nostalgic for a period you never lived through: anemoia. Although the Greek scholar in me thinks it should be spelled amnemoia.

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