Do you tsundoku? The art of owning more books than you'll ever read

Laura Freeman
'When the nation was hoarding loo-roll and stockpiling tins, I hotfooted it to the library to panic-borrow books' - Milton Cogheil / Alamy Stock Photo/https://www.alamy.com
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Once a year, I make an emergency call to Max the Carpenter. New shelves needed! Last year, Max brought his son. He wanted to show him “all your books”. I wasn’t sure if I was being used as a moral exempla or a cautionary tale: the woman who loved books too much. I had visions of suffering the sort of tragic death that befalls infants in Edward Gorey illustrations: “F is for Freeman, flattened by shelves.”

It almost happened once. When I was 11, my Dad tried to shuffle an Ikea bookcase, newly (and loosely) constructed, against the wall. Down it came, smash, crash, splinter, taking a chunk of the staircase and very nearly me with it. A little book-buying is a dangerous thing.

Let us not draw the wrong conclusion. The lesson isn’t buy fewer books. But build better bookcases. For while you will never regret buying a book, you may come to mourn throwing several hundred out.

In the time of coronavirus, the nation finds itself with time, time, time on its hands. How many of us, in the first few days of (in)glorious isolation, thought: now for that cupboard, now for those bookcases. Swab the decks, wipe the slate, have it all packed and ready for the Oxfam shop the minute the portcullis lifts.

Not so fast. When the nation was hoarding loo-roll and stockpiling tins, I hotfooted it to the London Library to panic-borrow books. We were, I feared, in for a long spell in solitary. Silly, really. Even before the dash to the issue desk, I had more books than any sane woman should. If we are here until Christmas, I still won’t have made a dent. Perhaps it’s just as well that the Hay Festival is online only this year as I would surely return with armfuls of new volumes, destined to join the bedside pile.

From time to time, I have a half-hearted go at thinning. I summon my inner Marie Kondo, approach the sitting room shelves. All together now: “Does this spark joy?” YES! And this one. And this one. And those above the kitchen hob. And those behind the study door. And those in the basket on the hall table. Joy, joy, joy.

The Japanese have a word for it: tsundoku – the pleasure of owning more books than you’ll ever have time to read. The word, thought to have been coined in the Meiji era (1868-1912), is a meeting of two ideas: tsunde-oku – to pile things up and then forget about them, and dokusho – reading books. Online, tsundoku cartoons annotate bookshelves with guilty scribbles: “books I’d look smart reading in public”; “books I bought because the covers were pretty”; “books I don’t ‘get’ but hold onto in the hope that some day I will.” One might add: “books bought in WH Smith while waiting for trains”; “books given by friends insisting “This is so you.” (It so wasn’t); “books bought to impress boys you are no longer dating”.

In all other respects, I am minimalist. Tidy to a fault. Every paperclip in its labelled box. The last time my husband caught me with the Dymo label-maker, he asked if we should make our own labels: “Man, Andy”; “Woman, Laura.”

When it comes to books, however, I am as (mad) maximalist as they come. Before the present crisis, we were house hunting. Every nook, cranny, eave and possible gable of our flat has been shelved. The straw that broke the domestic back was the delivery last year of decades of yellow Wisdens from the study of a friend’s father, lately bowled out. Now, I’m almost grateful we aren’t mid-move, self-isolating in an empty home with all our books in storage.  

When Buckingham Palace recently posted a photograph the Duchess of Cambridge sitting at her writing desk, it wasn’t her pink trouser suit that caught my eye, but the row of clothbound Penguin Classics above her blotter. A Christmas Carol, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Middlemarch, Wuthering Heights… Now there’s a woman with good self-isolation intentions. I wonder, though, if Wuthering is the way to go.

My aunt Miranda texted earlier this week: “Which ONE Dickens should I read?” I told her that my head said Bleak House, my heart Little Dorrit. But my worried, flustered, cooped-up soul says: not Dickens, not Proust, not Hilary Mantel in three hardback volumes. Now, I think about it, what could be worse than William Dorrit locked in the Marshalsea and telling Mr Clennam: “You talk very easily of hours, sir!  How long do you suppose, sir, that an hour is to a man who is choking for want of air?”

Prior to lockdown, with the news getting worse, I read Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. Perverse, I know. Still, it has one great consoling virtue: however bad you think it is for you, it’s worse by far for Jude. But that was my allotment of misery. Since then it has been a cosseting diet of Patrick Leigh Fermor, Persephone classics and E. M Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady in Wartime. She is a comfort, the Provincial Lady, with her bad hats and spilled suitcases and insistence that she can Easily Manage.

Whenever I have a bad moment, I say to myself: you can Easily Manage. It helps. My husband meanwhile is ploughing through Stefan Zweig and Ryszard Kapuscinksi and announces that he is about to start on Borges. Swot. Now is the time for the three Ps: Pym, Plum and Pollyanna. That is: Barbara Pym, PG Wodehouse and any children’s book that makes you glad when you see the cover.

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Books do furnish a room. But more than that, they furnish a mind and a life. Every book on my straining shelves is a trip, a prize, a friend, a consolation, a memory. My Dad has lately had to find homes for my grandfather’s books. No bookseller would take the many volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. All online now. The unwanted volumes aren’t sad in themselves. It’s more what they stand for: my grandfather, who never went to university, making a university of his own.    

I am haunted by novelist Linda Grant’s essay I Murdered My Library. Downsizing after 19 years, Grant describes culling her books “ruthlessly and remorselessly”. At times, she feels “like Alice in the closing pages of Wonderland, when all the cards rise up and overwhelm her.” The essay is published as a Kindle Single.

Before you lay one stiletto finger on a trembling spine, I urge you to download it. The words that have stayed with me are the last: “What have I done?” 

Don’t kill your darlings. Don’t declutter your shelves. Instead, embrace tsundoku. All those books you bought and thought you wouldn’t get round to reading? Well, it’s now… or never.

Laura Freeman’s The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite (W&N, £8.99) is out now in paperback. The Hay Festival Digital runs until May 31