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Tsundoku: Stop Feeling Guilty About Your Unread Books

Is your bookshelf or night shelf teeming with dusty books you don’t have time to read? Do these unread books induce feelings of guilt?
Tsundoku: Stop Feeling Guilty About Your Unread Books

If so, perhaps you’re practicing the ancient art of tsundoku 積置. This Japanese word translates as “reading pile.” It describes buying more books than you’ll ever read.

Professor Andrew Gerstle teaches pre-modern Japanese texts at the University of London. He told the BBC, the word “doku” translates as the verb “reading” while “tsun” means to pile up. The etymology of the Japanese term tsundoku goes back to 16th century Japan, and it’s not something Japanese bibliophiles are embarrassed about.

But the concept of stockpiling too many books isn’t confined to ancient Japan. In 1809, English biographer Thomas Frognall Dibdin published his book Bibliomania. In his book, Frognall presented fictional dialogues from bibliophiles to explore what he called “book madness.”

In short, stockpiling books is an old habit and a good one. That’s especially true for anyone engaged in creative work, as our inputs impact on outputs.

It’s easy to waste hours reading the news or on social media, but a good book can dramatically impact your viewpoint and creative work. All that said, how can you manage tsundoku and or supposedly out-of-control book-buying habits effectively?

Reframe Reading As A Source Of Learning

If you’ve dozens of great books to read, consider putting a plan in place to focus the top half a dozen. That’s what Warren Buffett and Bill Gates do.

Nothing is wrong with reading a cheap or trashy thriller for pleasure. But for these entrepreneurs, new books are sources of learning. In a New York Times interview, Gates said,

“These days, I also get to visit interesting places, meet with scientists, and watch a lot of lectures online. But reading is still the main way that I both learn new things and test my understanding.”

When asked about the secret to his success, Warren Buffett told a body of students about to graduate,

“Read 500 pages…every day. That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it.”

Read More Than One Book At Once

I keep several books on the go. This practice enables switching from one book to the next without getting bored. Also, by reading multiple books, ideas from the first book mix in weird ways with the ideas from the second.

The trick is not to avoid reading so many books that you find it difficult to finish, even the good ones. However, if you read more than one book, you’ll always have something to feel excited about picking up.

I gravitate towards non-fiction in the mornings and easy fiction late at night.

Buy Digital Books

You can buy dozens of digital and audiobooks without filling up precious space in your home or apartment. Plus, you can take these reading materials out with you and consume them on the go. No more stacks of books to trip over!

I also like buying digital books as they’re relatively easy and inexpensive to send to a friend as a digital gift.

Listen To Audiobooks

Professional headphones
Photo by Alphacolor / Unsplash

Audiobooks are a fantastic way of reading more books on the go. You can listen to them while commuting, walking, or working out. If you’re comfortable with the format, increase the playback speed to one-and-a-half or even two times the normal playback speed.

I also like how Amazon’s Whispersync technology enables me to listen to an audiobook on my phone and resume reading from a Kindle later.

Abandon Bad Books

Oprah recommends putting a book down after 50 pages if it’s not enjoyable. I’d caveat her recommendation with “if it’s not enjoyable…or useful.”

After all, you’ve got dozens of more new books to get through, right? So if you struggle with abandoning bad books, don’t worry.

Bill Gates struggles to put down bad books too. He told Time magazine he spends more time on books he dislikes because he writes arguments and counterpoints in the margins. Perhaps that applies to books you’re learning from only. I couldn’t imagine doing that with a James Patterson thriller.

Ask Peers For Book Recommendations

In a Time interview, Gates cited Business Adventures by John Brooks as one of his favorite reads. He said,

“Business Adventures is a collection of Brooks’s New Yorker essays about why various companies succeeded or failed. The essay titled ‘Xerox Xerox Xerox Xerox’ should win an award for most clever chapter name, and the lessons inside the book are even better. I took inspiration from it while running Microsoft.”

Personally, I found that book insightful if a little dry. You might not be able to run your purchases past Gates or Buffett before clicking “Buy now” on Amazon, but you can use their public reading lists to inform which business books you pick up next.

Gates keeps a running list of books he recommends on Gatesnotes, while ValueWalk (or a quick Google search) reveals Buffett’s choices.

Create Your Antilibrary

Lebanese-American investor and author Nassim Taleb believes books you haven’t read contain more value than ones you’ve finished. He argues for building a collection of unread books from across a range of disciplines.

In Black Swan, he told readers to beware of reading too many books from a list or personal library without replenishing their shelves with unread titles. He called on us to build a personal antilibrary of unread books.

“The antilibrary should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there.

A personal antilibrary can become a roadmap for where we want to go next, rather than a history of what we read last.

Use Read It Later Apps

Apps like Instapaper and Pocket are useful for hoarding articles that you can read later rather than immediately. I like using these apps as I can save an article and return to it a few weeks before deciding if I want to buy a book by the writer in question.

In an interview, Pocket CEO Nate Weiner told me:

"Before, readers had to hold their phone or look at their computer. They can now consume that content while they're out on a run or while they're driving to work, or they're making dinner," said Weiner

Give Books Away

Books are a relatively cheap purchase compared to other household goods. You can pick up a popular bestseller for ten or twenty dollars. But they’re much more valuable as gifts.

Book lovers can purchase a title for a friend or family member and write a personal message on the first few pages. They’re far more likely to hang onto this book than any greeting card. And if your choice is a good one, this book will mean more to them.

Tsundoku: The Final Word

Having too many unread books isn't always a bad thing. Instead, it's a sign of where your curiosity lies and where you'd like to go next. Use the strategies in this guide to get more out of your library and reading habits.

If you like this article, check out this guide on how to read more often.