The Art of Tsundoku: Why Do We Collect Books Without Reading Them?

Alessio Frateily

Hatched by Alessio Frateily

Jan 31, 2024

5 min read


The Art of Tsundoku: Why Do We Collect Books Without Reading Them?

Have you ever found yourself accumulating a pile of books that you never seem to get around to reading? If so, you may be familiar with the Japanese term "tsundoku." Derived from an ancient Japanese dialect, tsundoku combines the words tsunde (to pile up or accumulate), doku (to read), and oku (to leave for a while). This practice of accumulating books and leaving them untouched for a period of time has been observed since the Middle Ages and is still prevalent in Eastern cultures today.

For those who indulge in tsundoku, the act of purchasing books with the intention of eventually reading them is a common occurrence. These books are placed on shelves, bedside tables, or scattered around the house, waiting to be picked up and enjoyed. However, as time goes on, new books capture our interest, and the previously purchased ones are left forgotten. It becomes a cycle of acquiring new volumes, only to have them replaced by even newer ones, rendering some of the "new" books outdated before they are even read.

The term "bibliophile" refers to individuals who possess a deep love and passion for books. While a bibliophile may also accumulate a significant number of books, they make a concerted effort to read each one. They have a thirst for knowledge, a genuine love for reading, and a fondness for physical books with their rough pages. A bibliophile is also a collector, often preferring rare editions of well-known books, autographed copies from favorite authors, or out-of-print tomes that are no longer available in the market.

Interestingly, tsundoku is not considered a negative practice, especially among avid readers who have read at least 12 books in a year, commonly known as "strong readers." In Italy, for example, only 15.2% of the population were classified as strong readers in 2022, indicating a relatively low percentage. Regardless of whether these books are read or not, the act of purchasing them has been found to have benefits for mental well-being. The act of buying an item, as numerous studies have shown, boosts the mood of the buyer. And when it comes to books, there is an added advantage. Renowned American writer Alfred Edward Newton, who lived between the 19th and 20th centuries, described it best: "Even when reading is impossible, the presence of books acquired produces such an ecstasy that the buying of more books than one can read is nothing less than the soul reaching towards infinity. We cherish books even if we haven't read them. Their mere presence makes us feel at ease, and their availability gives us a sense of security."

While tsundoku may seem like a harmless habit, there are ways to make the most of your book collection and ensure that you actually read the books you acquire. One effective technique that has stood the test of time is the Method of Loci, also known as the Memory Palace technique. This technique, used by the ancient Romans and still employed by modern Memory Athletes and even fictional characters like Sherlock Holmes, is hailed as the most effective and versatile mnemonic technique.

The concept behind the Memory Palace technique is to utilize familiar routes and locations to store various types of information. By mentally constructing a journey through a familiar place, such as your own home, and associating specific points with the information you want to remember, you can enhance your memory retention.

To get started with the Memory Palace technique, follow these three actionable steps:

  • 1. Begin with your own home: Start by using your own home as the foundation for your Memory Palace. Familiarity with the layout will make it easier to create mental associations and navigate through the palace.
  • 2. Move from room to room: Visualize moving from one room to another within your home. This will serve as the structure for your memory journey.
  • 3. Choose the loci: Select specific points within each room to serve as your loci. These loci should be prominent and easily identifiable objects or furniture. Aim for an average of 3-5 loci per room, depending on the size of the room.

When choosing your loci, keep these guidelines in mind:

  • Move from one locus to another in a clockwise direction, starting from the entrance of the room. This creates an organized sequence of points for depositing information, eliminating the need to remember the order.
  • Ensure that the loci are evenly distributed throughout the room to maintain a balanced mental journey.
  • Opt for loci of medium to large size, such as a table, bed, refrigerator, or TV. Avoid smaller objects like shelves, pillows, or pen holders, at least for now.
  • Avoid repetition within the same room. It's not advisable to choose two sofas, two chairs, or two nightstands, as this may lead to confusion.

To remember a list of words using the Memory Palace technique, visualize each word as an image and associate it with the corresponding locus in your palace, following the order of the words. The first image corresponds to the first locus, the second image to the second locus, and so on.

Now, let's put this technique to the test using the first ten loci of your Memory Palace: Keyboard - Tree - Water - Candle - Shoe - Easy - Needle - Dust - Platform - Helmet.

By incorporating the Memory Palace technique into your reading routine, you can enhance your memory retention and make the most of your book collection. Remember, the goal is not just to accumulate books but to embark on a journey of reading and knowledge. Happy reading!

In conclusion, tsundoku, the practice of accumulating books without reading them, is a common occurrence among avid readers. While it may seem like a harmless habit, there are ways to ensure that your book collection doesn't gather dust. By understanding the allure of tsundoku, incorporating the Method of Loci, and making a conscious effort to read the books you acquire, you can strike a balance between collecting and enjoying literature. So, embrace your love for books, but also make sure to indulge in the pleasure of reading.

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