Tsundoku

They are the unread. No, not the undead, although there is certainly a pop-consciousness allegory hidden there—even the MLA has sessions on Zombie Modernism now. I mean the unread, the backlog, books that are patiently waiting on the shelf or even at the edge of our consciousness. Stuff we perhaps mean to read but haven’t gotten around to yet. Let’s give this our attention.

My brilliant friend and long-suffering lawyer Russell DaSilva has a dangerous fluency in Japanese. He admits to having a favorite word in that language: tsundoku. Russell deconstructed it for me. A portmanteau noun from two verbs tsumu, to pile up, and toku, to read. Toku, he explained, is pronounced doku once emplaced in the noun, asserting parenthetically how Japanese is the most infinitely subtle language. (This comment was possibly a dig at my praise for the subtle grace of German in an earlier conversation.) Colloquially the word means “that pile of books next to your bed sitting here that you haven’t read yet.”

MNP Book PileHere’s just one of my piles of unread books. This is a shelf in my apartment, counterpart to another shelf at my house on the mountain and the virtual pile of unread e-books in my Kindle. Over there on the left is a perfect example: I thoroughly enjoyed Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational. Dan is both a fellow game theorist and a buddy from Renaissance Weekend. So I definitely plan to read The Upside of Irrationality. I’ve wanted to since the summer of 2010, which demonstrates how long his book has been hanging around.

Once introduced, the concept of tsundoku quickly devolves from Japanese philological insight into an American game with book lists. The kind of thing that the original “Poison Squad” at the Gonk, the Algonquin Hotel, might have enjoyed—each player one-upping the next. This is boring. I propose instead to expand the model with examples. For tsundoku, you see, has dimensions.

Books that I haven’t read yet, intend to read, and definitely will read. This is traditional tsundoku. Quite valid and the least interesting variant. I have many novels in this category, including—embarrassingly—more than a few by my incredibly talented colleagues here at Algonquin Redux. Dennis Lehane’s Moonlight Mile is there in the photographed pile, and I’ve recently added Dan Brown’s Inferno, Dave Eggers’ The Circle, and Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

Books that I mean to read but I am probably kidding myself. More interesting, principally because illustration requires this act of public confession. Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed. The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin. J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. Reaching back as far as college, Stendahl’s The Charterhouse of Parma, Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, and Tolstoy’s Resurrection. Reading requires triage.

Books that I started, never finished, and mean to get back to. Chagrin because I have at least three John Hawkes novels—The Frog, An Irish Eye, Whistlejacket—that fit into this category. (My first book, shelved and forgotten decades ago, was about Hawkes.) Most of Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson, four imposing volumes with more to come, resides here. Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent goes with me on my next airline flight. Then there’s half of the contents of my Kindle, mostly nonfiction: Michael Woodford’s Exposure, Mara Hvistendahl’s Unnatural Selection, Patricia Cohen’s In Our Prime, Anita Raghavan’s The Billionaire’s Apprentice.

Books that I probably should read but I am not going to, because the author is just insufferable. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Freedom. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. However, this tsundoku has a corollary, the insufferable author whose work I genuinely like and appreciate: q.v. Brett Easton Ellis.

Books that are literary joys, stuff that I love and will savor, so I’m hoarding and husbanding them. A long list. Anything by Michael Connelly, T. Jefferson Parker, or James Ellroy. The last two novels in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, Catching Fire and Mockingjay. Come to think of it, I also haven’t read the last two novels in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge.

Books I bluff that I have read, but I haven’t. Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, although damn, I did try, more than once.

Books that I really did read, but nobody believes me. Not rightly tsundoku, but relevant in light of the last category—because they are mostly unread. James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain . . . in German (Der Zauberberg). Tolstoy’s War and Peace . . . in English translation.

Books I reviewed but didn’t read. Actually, I never did this. Yet this tsundoku category certainly exists and every one of us AR authors has probably been affected by it. I know that at least two reviewers of The Navigator this year didn’t read my novel—or more likely didn’t bother to finish it. Eighth circle of Dante’s Hell for them, although it’s most unlikely that they have ever read the Divina Commedia either.

There are plenty of other tsundoku dimensions, perhaps best reserved for later literary conversation, for example:

  • Zeitgeist books that I will talk about but probably not get around to reading (Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear, Malala Yousafzai’s I am Malala).
  • Books I know so much about from reading the reviews that I don’t actually have to read (After the Music Stopped by Alan S. Blinder, Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson).
  • Books people buy as a political statement, never really intending to read (Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama, Decision Points by George W. Bush).

Books unread, accompanied by confessional . . . my real-life year in review, 2013.

☐  ☐  ☐

This post marks one year for me here at Algonquin Redux, a whirlwind year in which my novel launched and prospered, with all of my thanks and respect to you, readers and friends. We’ve now also been together through the rebirth and re-launch of AR, and I can’t help but be excited for our future.

Norb Vonnegut recently made five predictions here for 2014. I’d like to follow up his good words, even though he’s wrong about The Wolf of Wall Street (syllogism: TWOWS is to Scorsese as Eyes Wide Shut is to Kubrick). Only I’d like to make a few promises, just as I promised you a year ago that you’d read about book marketing—an aspect of writing and publishing rarely considered by authors, even more rarely written about. Here are my new promises:

  • I’ll publish at least one long-form post.
  • You’ll see some of the sequel to The Navigator.

Happy New Year.


3 thoughts on “Tsundoku

  • Donna Galanti

    Michael, a hoot! I am guilty of much of this. Especially trying to get through Ivanhoe – since I was a teen. 30 years later I say that’s a FAIL. I am constantly reminded of the books on my nightstand I haven’t read as my cat flings them on the floor when he wants me to wake up and feed him. Then there’s the guilty books I keep re-reading to escape back into my childhood wonder (Little House and Narnia series). And, as I’m transitioning to write middle grade/YA, the books I know I should read but don’t as I know all about them from the media (Harry Potter, The Hunger Games) . Books I want to wade through but probably never will (Atlas Shrugged). Kudos for you for trying!

    And speaking of those reviewers that don’t get it right as they didnt finish the book – had a couple of those myself. Had to laugh at their twists that happened in my book that that never truly did!

    But I have a new word now tsundoku to use – for the rest of my life. That nightstand will never be empty,

    Will keep watch on your new promises for 2014, Michael! And hooray for you for such a momentous 2013.

  • Carla Norton

    I speak a little Japanese, so this caught my eye. Thanks for explaining Tsundoku, a very useful word. And thanks for this courageous post. My own pile of unread books has reached embarrassing heights while I’ve been working on my new novel. With luck, I’ll be able to tackle some of them in the new year. (BTW, I echo your feelings about The Corrections. And I envy your ability to read in German. There’s no way I’m reading any book in Japanese or any language more challenging than British English.)
    Happy Year of the Horse!

  • Mary Vonnegut

    American Gods, everything by Murakami, Telegraph Avenue, The Luminaries, The Orphan Masters Son… I could keep going.

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