Her Campus Logo Her Campus Logo

Since COVID-19 started to spread, extra time at home has allowed quarantiners to pick up new hobbies and get back into old ones. Since March, I’ve been making an effort to read more. While you won’t see me setting aside Gilmore Girls for Gilgamesh, the pandemic has significantly improved my reading habits. During the pandemic, I have finished three books and started another three that I’m still working on. Working through books that I’ve been meaning to read for a while made me realize that I keep a lot of untouched ones piled around my room. Whether underneath the bed, spilling out of my nightstand, or shoved into the last bit of available space on my bookshelf, my book collection far outstrips my reading habit.

I’m not the only one who suffers from an Amazon cart overloaded with books that I probably won’t get to any time soon. My Goodreads “Want to Read” list pales in comparison to some of my friends. I simply thought of us as time-pressed bibliophiles. Yes, the towers of books in my room have begun to resemble a small city, but I didn’t know there was a name for it. I didn’t imagine that a more specific term for my collection existed. I didn’t realize other people even thought about this until I stumbled across the Japanese word tsundoku

Tsundoku is the act of “acquiring books and letting them pile up in one’s home without reading them." While one might think that this comes with a negative connotation, it’s actually associated with a sense of whimsy and aspiration. Japanese historian Senzo Mori coined the term in a pun about a “sensei tsundoku” – a teacher who collected books without reading them. He created the word by combining tsundeoku “to let things pile up” and doku “to read." The extra “deoku” was dropped, and the word was shortened to tsundoku. It entered Japanese slang during the Meiji era (1868-1912) and is still in use today.

While tsundoku originated as a word specific to buying books, today, it refers to many patterns besides book-buying. To say someone is afflicted with tsundoku could mean they stockpile unused software packages, collect art but never display it, or even buy fashionable clothing without wearing it. Whatever the reason for collecting or for not using what is collected, tsundoku is a common practice. 

But why would one use the Japanese word tsundoku when English has words like bibliophile, bibliomania, and bookworm? Don’t they all mean the same thing – to like books? Subtle but crucial differences make the distinction between tsundoku and its English synonyms. Take bibliomania, for example. It also refers to a passion for collecting books, but it carries a negative connotation. In 1809, English cleric Thomas Dibdin referred to it as a “neurosis” in his book Bibliomania, and today it is a recognized symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The word bookworm, on the other hand, describes someone who reads voraciously. Finally, the word bibliophile refers to a person who simply loves books (regardless of whether they read many or not). Differences in why people buy books and what they do with them create these subtle distinctions.

Bibliomania is the closest the English language comes to the concept of tsundoku, for it also conveys the buying of books without necessarily reading them. However, a key difference separates the two. Bibliomaniacs focus on collecting books, while tsundoku refers to the accidental act of acquiring too many. Intention is the key element. Take Stephen Blumberg, a bibliomaniac who was arrested in 1990 for stealing over 23,600 books valued at over 5.3 million dollars. (He even stole a first edition copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin!) One can assume that he never meant to actually read all 23,600 volumes in his possession. He had more of a passion for ownership than for reading. Conversely, the typical tsundoku enthusiast is more benign and inadvertent. She operates intending to read every book she buys but often does not live up to her aspirational shopping. Someone indulging in tsundoku would never steal 23,600 books because they could never read them all. It’s not just semantics. The difference between bibliomania and tsundoku is the difference between a stolen first edition Stowe and an untouched stack of paperbacks.

Tsundoku isn’t a bad thing, but I still try to minimize the piles of books accumulating in my room (or at least read some of them). As the pandemic drags on, and I continue to find time to read, my stacks of unread material are slowly shrinking. Bibliophiles, whether they’re building a collection, unintentionally stockpiling, or tearing through a bodice-ripping romance novel, are finding more time for their passion. As the book lovers of the world make time to tackle their shelves, it may help to know that there’s a name for their mountains of text. It might be bibliomania, good old fashioned obsession, or even a Faulkner fire hazard. I call mine tsundoku

Sabrina is an undergraduate student at Texas A&M University majoring in Applied Mathematical Sciences with an emphasis in economics. She is an avid reader and painter, and is passionate about helping the underprivileged. When she's not in class, she enjoys drinking coffee, buying plants, and cultivating her Spotify playlists.
Similar Reads👯‍♀️