• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

Tsundoku, or, The Book Pile

A name for a condition.

 

June 4, 2018
 
 

According to Twitter, the Japanese word “Tsundoku” refers to the practice or habit of buying books and letting them pile up unread.

(looks at feet)

(whistles a happy tune)

(hands in pockets)

Reader, I’ve got it bad. I just didn’t know there was a word for it.

The clues have been there for a while. The banker’s boxes in the basement, full of books.  The newly purchased bookshelves in the living room, already overstuffed. The coffee table with the entire lower level unusable for anything because of piles (note the plural) of books. 

It’s getting worse.  Sometimes I resort to covering unread books with unread magazines.  

I know I’m not the only one.  Academics as a breed are prone to tsundoku.  The Girl, only 13, already has piles of books in her room. 

For a while, I hoped that technology would save me.  The kindle was supposed to put to rest the unending clutter.  But the reading experience just isn’t as satisfying. It’ll do in a pinch, but it’s simply not the same thing.  Besides, I spend way too much time staring at screens already. Reading paper comes as a respite.

Yes, some books were received as gifts, and some of those are ones I wouldn’t have chosen.  I don’t feel so bad about those. And I’ve read a good number of my books, and partially read even more.  (One of the adult indulgences I’ve allowed myself is to give up on a book if it doesn’t grab me within what seems like a decent interval.  It’s the equivalent of walking out of a movie, which I have also done. Life is too short to waste on misfires.)

Still, the purchases continue.  

Part of it is the hard-won knowledge that “out of sight, out of mind” is real.  Keeping them in sight reminds me that they exist, and that I ought to read them.  If I don’t buy them when I’m thinking about them, the logic goes, I might forget about them altogether!  That happens often enough that the fear is real. And there’s a palpable thrill that comes with browsing a stack or a shelf and happening upon a long-forgotten purchase that fits the mood perfectly.  Just last weekend, I curled up with “All Over But the Shouting: An Oral History of The Replacements,” by Jim Walsh, and I regret nothing. Yes, it means that Richard Sennett’s latest is still sitting there, unread, judging me, but somehow Tommy Stinson fit the mood of the day a little better.

I read once that unread books represent the embodied fantasy of having the time to read them all.  There’s truth in that, but that’s only part of it. Each individual purchase carried with it a genuine expectation of actually reading it at some point. 

Of course, parenthood adds a challenge.  The kids have sports, which make significant time demands on the parents.  (TB just lettered in track!) Neither has a license yet, we live in suburbia, and self-driving cars aren’t here yet, so chauffeur duty takes up more than its fair share of time.  Then there’s the Spring rubber chicken circuit, and the usual stuff of life. In my case, there’s also this “blogging” thing I do.

That’s all true, but all also sort of beside the point.  Part of it is just that the appetite for knowing stuff exceeds the time available for learning stuff.  It creates a backup.

I just didn’t know there was a word for it. 

I’m not alone in this, though, right?...

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