The Art and Science of Tsundoku: Why We Hoard Books

Tsundoku is a Japanese term used to describe those people who love books and hoard them. There is no doubt that the romance of the dusty, worn pages, the thrill of a crisp, untouched spine, the joy of a rare find, an untold story waiting to be discovered – all encapsulate the love affair many of us have with books.

For those who are Tsundoku, this love affair goes beyond finding great books to read and enjoy. It extends to collecting, and even hoarding. Tsundoku isn’t just a random habit, but a fusion of complex cultural, psychological, and personal elements that are fascinating and intriguing.

The Art and Science of Tsundoku: Why We Hoard Books
The Art and Science of Tsundoku: Why We Hoard Books

Understanding Tsundoku: A Cultural Perspective

The term Tsundoku combines the words ‘tsunde’ meaning to stack things, ‘oku’ which means to leave for a while, and ‘doku’ that translates to reading. Thus, Tsundoku refers to the act of acquiring books and letting them pile up without being read.

The History and Origin of Tsundoku

To understand where Tsundoku came from, we need to travel back in time to the Meiji Era (1868-1912) in Japan. During this time, the country underwent a rapid Westernization, including the propagation of printed materials. People started buying books more than they could read, leading to piles of unread literature.

As Japan continued to embrace Western literature and knowledge, the desire to possess books became a symbol of status and intellectual curiosity. It was not uncommon for individuals to acquire books as a form of cultural capital, even if they didn’t have the time or inclination to read them immediately. The act of collecting books became a way to showcase one’s intellectual pursuits and aspirations.

However, Tsundoku shouldn’t be mistaken as a practice limited to Japan. Many cultures worldwide, especially those with a great literary tradition, exhibit this phenomenon to some degree. From avid readers in Europe during the Renaissance to book lovers in ancient China, the allure of acquiring books and leaving them unread transcends time and borders.

Tsundoku in Modern Society

In today’s society, Tsundoku manifests itself on a grander scale. The accessibility of online shopping, availability of discount books, and the vast array of genres and sub-genres have resulted in towering book stacks in many homes. The ease of acquiring books with a simple click of a button has only fueled the Tsundoku phenomenon.

Moreover, Tsundoku has evolved beyond physical books. With the rise of e-readers and digital libraries, individuals can amass a virtual collection of unread books without taking up any physical space. The allure of having a vast library at one’s fingertips, filled with untapped knowledge and endless narratives, is a temptation few can resist.

A Symbol of Wisdom

But the practice of Tsundoku is not viewed negatively in modern society. On the contrary, it is often seen as a symbol of a person’s love for knowledge and literature. The act of acquiring books, even if they remain unread, is seen as a reflection of one’s intellectual curiosity and a desire for personal growth.

Furthermore, Tsundoku represents the aspirational self, promising a world of unread knowledge and narratives, able to be tapped into at any moment. The presence of unread books in one’s collection serves as a reminder of the endless possibilities awaiting exploration. Each unread book holds the potential to transport the reader to new worlds, challenge their perspectives, and expand their understanding of the human experience.

Tsundoku is continued to be celebrated today and is viewed more as a personal expression and less as a compulsive behavior. It is a celebration of the written word, a testament to the human thirst for knowledge, and a visual representation of the multifaceted nature of our interests and passions.

The Psychology Behind Hoarding Books

Certain emotional connections and fears play a pivotal role in this unique habit of accumulating more books than we can possibly consume. And while Tsundoku is viewed positively, it’s essential to understand the psychology behind it.

The Emotional Connection to Books

Books are more than objects; they are worlds filled with characters and ideas that can profoundly affect a reader. This empathy extends beyond the pages, creating a sentimental attachment with the books themselves, driving the desire to collect and hold onto them.

The tactile sensation of books, their smell, the individual feeling they confer, all add to a sensory and emotional connection. This connection is often a meaningful part of why we hoard them.

The Fear of Letting Go: Why We Keep Books We Don’t Read

There is a strong link between our memories, our emotional well-being and books. Sometimes, the act of acquiring books is a safety net against uncertainty. The fear of not having a book you might want to read someday, no matter how unlikely, fuels Tsundoku. Some people also preserve books for their future selves, or for their children and grandchildren – a legacy of sorts. We’re also often reluctant to let go of books because we view them as reminders of different periods in our lives.

In addition, there is a certain prestige associated with owning books. Our bookshelves represent our intellectual journeys, hinting at our tastes, interests, and intellectual capacity. Who among us hasn’t stood in awe of a wide array of bookshelves, loaded with stories, ideas and philosophies untold?

The Art of Tsundoku: Aesthetics and Personal Expression

The Beauty of a Personal Library

A personal library, no matter how disorganized it might appear, is an expression of personal taste and a testament to the value one places on knowledge. The sheer presence of books can provide a sense of comfort, quiet, and intellectual engagement.

Moreover, arranging and rearranging books, thematically, aesthetically, or chronologically, can be an artistic process in itself, making our living spaces more personal and intellectually invigorating.

Books as Decor: The Aesthetic Appeal of Tsundoku

Books are not just revered for their content, but also for their physical form. A well-designed book cover can indeed serve as a decorative piece, adding personality to a room.

Even the sight of stacked books, their multicolored spines, the variation in sizes, creates a certain aesthetic appeal that transcends their practical function.

The Science of Tsundoku: Neurological and Behavioral Aspects

Reviewing the latest neuroscience and behavioural research might help us find why Tsundoku is such a worldwide phenomenon.

The Dopamine Rush: Buying Books and the Brain

Like everything we purchase, buying a new book stimulates the release of dopamine – the feel-good hormone. In particular, the pleasure peak experienced during the acquisition of a new book, does not necessarily require its consumption. As a result, many books wind up on our shelves, unread.

The Habit Loop: How Tsundoku Becomes a Behavior Pattern

Behavioral science provides another explanation. The acquisition of books can become a habit loop – a repeated process of cue, action, and reward. The sight of a book or a bookstore acts as a cue, acquiring the book is the action, and the transient happiness from purchase is the reward.

The continual repetition of this loop can strengthen neuro-associations, making Tsundoku a behavioral pattern over time.

The Impact of Tsundoku: Pros and Cons

While Tsundoku is a fascinating habit, it’s crucial to strike a balance and understand its potential positive and negative implications.

The Positive Effects of Tsundoku

From a positive perspective, Tsundoku portrays the person as an intellectual aspirant. Books provide a rich source of potential knowledge at one’s fingertips, and each book purchased represents a gateway to a new world of thoughts, ideas, or narratives.

And as discussed earlier, a personal library can enhance aesthetics, adding personality, and charm to one’s living space.

The Potential Downsides of Book Hoarding

On the flip side, hoarding books can turn into an economically and spatially consuming habit. Keeping books you’re unlikely to read doesn’t just take up physical space, it may also mentally clutter your mind with guilt or the relentless pressure to read.

Moreover, excessive book buying might overwhelm some, causing them to lose interest in reading altogether. Therefore, while Tsundoku can be a symbol of intellectual curiosity, a balance must be struck for it to remain a rewarding practice.

In conclusion, Tsundoku, or the habit of hoarding books, is a complex fusion of culture, psychology, art, science, and personal preference. Next time you stack up another book on your bookshelf, remember that it’s not just a book – it’s a nugget of your identity, a slice of your story, and a part of your life’s journey.


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