There’s a word in Japanese for the literary affliction of buying books you don’t read

Must. Have. One. More.
Must. Have. One. More.
Image: Reuters/Olivia Harris
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

So many books, so little time. In the age of media binging, too often we end up buying books we never actually read.

The moment goes something like this: Skim fascinating book review online. Buy on Amazon with 1-click. Scroll down. Buy two other titles with 1-click. Leave books on bedside table. Repeat two weeks later. Scold yourself for killing the trees.

It’s an affliction so common that there’s a word for it in Japanese, and a support group on Goodreads.

Tsundoku is the stockpiling of books never consumed. Sahoko Ichikawa, a senior lecturer in Japanese at Cornell University, explains that tsunde means “to stack things” and oku is “to leave for a while.” The word originated in Japan’s late 19th century Meiji Era from a play on words. Sometime around the turn of the century, the oku in tsunde oku was replaced with doku, meaning to read. But because tsunde doku rolls awkwardly off the tongue, the mashup version became tsundoku.

On the book rating site Goodreads, the afflicted gather to commiserate at Book Buying Addicts Anonymous about the financial and psychological consequences. Unread books symbolize frivolous expenditures and mounting failures. Online bibliophiles confess to feelings of guilt, and some even hide purchases from family.

“I am so with you on the feeling guilty. I live with my brother, his wife, and three kids and I have to sneak my books in. How sad is that? I mostly do that because I don’t want to hear – ‘You bough more books? Where are you going to keep them?'” writes one group member. Another adds, “The main time I feel guilty is when I’ve put aside a little money in Paypal, intending it to be savings … and I blow it on a book auction on eBay.”

Others rationalize their behavior. “I mean, it’s not its some illegal substance that’ll cause you to do bodily harm to someone else to get it. Plus, I’ve realized that everybody has their “thing” where they indulge/ over indulge,” another contributor writes.

Most Americans seem to agree that, in theory, reading a physical book is worthwhile. According to a Pew Research report on reading habits, 73% of Americans read at least one book in the last year, and the median number was four books per year. Some two-thirds of respondents reported reading a printed book, compared to 28% who e-read, and 14% who listened to literature.

The mere presence of printed books can conjure pleasant (or painful) feelings of nostalgia, and longing for the cathartic release of reading them. Coloring books, for example, are largely responsible for the recent rise in physical book sales in the US and UK. That we fail to find the time to read them can feed our desires to buy more. In the words of British fiction writer Jeanette Winterson, “Book collecting is an obsession, an occupation, a disease, an addiction, a fascination, an absurdity, a fate. It is not a hobby. Those who do it must do it.”