Tsundoku: The compulsion to buy more books than one can ever possibly hope to have a sufficient lifetime to read.
‘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’
A. Edward Newton, Collector of English & American Literature (1864 – 1940).
It is typical of the Japanese to create a noun to name that which no-one previously knew existed, and equally typical that such a noun should combine metaphysics and fine art, but in respect of the Newton quote, I know just what he means, and if I did not share his almost mystical belief that the buying of more and more books is like adding bricks to a tower in which one can hide from Death, I would think it a wildly romantic hyperbole – and one extremely difficult for a non-bibliophile to understand. But, in accordance with Scott Fitzgerald’s definition of a well-balanced mind, I am able to hold two completely contradictory ideas at the same time and, despite a perfectly sound and scientifically-based respect for the limits of human mortality, remain peculiarly convinced that my time on earth will magically expand to accommodate each new (albeit usually second-hand) book I all too frequently buy. In short, like Zeno’s arrow, I am destined to be aimed correctly but never to arrive…
Newton wasn’t just a famous book-collector, he actually wrote a book, and the wonderful irony is that this book, The Amenities of Book–Collecting and Kindred Affections by A. Edward Newton, The Atlantic Monthly Press, Boston, 1918, is, despite its rather ponderous title, as worthy of being collected as many of the books people do actually collect. The chapter on Oscar Wilde alone is worth the admission price, and is as well-balanced and critically sound as the work of any contemporary scholar. It is one of those warm, wise, witty volumes that makes you think the author would’ve been a pleasure to know – and he also possesses an extraordinary, and quite unexpected, gift for deadpan humour. Almost every page has a quotable passage, and there are 355 pp to choose from, but here are a few, taken more or less at random (and they’re often at their best when they have only a tangential relationship to books). –
‘First editions are scarce; tenth editions are scarcer.’
‘Pets die too, in spite of constant care – perhaps by reason of it. To quiet a teething dog I once took him, her, it, to my room for the night and slept soundly. Next morning, I found that the dog had committed suicide by jumping out of the window.’
‘We should buy our books as we buy our clothes, not only to cover our nakedness but to embellish us; and we should buy more books and fewer clothes.’
‘The fog and soot of London soon give the newest building an appearance of age, and mercifully bring it into harmony with its surroundings.’
‘Golf has taken the place of books. I know that it takes time and lots of money. I do not play the game myself, but I have a son who does. Perhaps when I am his age, I will feel that I can afford it.’
‘The two great events of Nelson’s life were his meeting with Lady Emma Hamilton and his meeting with the French.’
‘The Brontës were geniuses undoubtably, especially Emily, but one would hardly select the author of ‘Wuthering Heights’ as a companion for a social evening.’
As is evident, I like Newton enormously, but he also somehow manages to bring into focus the relationship between reader and writer; or better still, between reading and writing. I was once in conversation with a poet and editor who said, ‘I want to live in a world where people write.’ My knee-jerk response was, ‘There’s books enough already to fill a thousand libraries. I want to live in a world where people read.’
I might well have gone on to say that for me the burning of the Great Library at Alexandria in 48 BC was the greatest tragedy in antiquity, far worse than the combined destructions of Carthage and Troy.
We are a strange people, a noisy people. We praise a man for being a great orator; we rarely bestow equal stature on a great listener. Likewise, with the printed word: If I ask you who are the world’s ten greatest contemporary writers, you will swiftly bend yourself to the task, arguing with your friends and colleagues about who should be included, who not. But if I were to ask you who were the world’s ten greatest readers, you would be confused and disappointed by the very nature of the question – and I would certainly not anticipate much in the way of an answer. You would eventually counter that reading is a silent, solitary pursuit, it does not lend itself to be appreciated by others; cannot be qualified or quantified. I quite agree. I would then admit that my question was ironic and intended to make you think about the nature of the question itself rather than any possible (or, indeed, impossible) answer. And after a certain amount of Socratic dialectic we would reach the point I always intended we should reach: the civilised world can live without writers, but it cannot live without readers. If already so many books exist that the word tsundoku can be coined, then the world has no need of any more. It has instead great need of intelligent thoughtful people to read and appreciate the many wonderful books we already have – and equally intelligent and committed people to build and maintain the libraries and collections that will ensure those books are preserved and made available for generations to come.
I once heard a story that may not be entirely irrelevant. It is in fact a story within a story, and it was told to me by a wise old man in a land very far away –
We are a strange people, a remote and distant people, who believe that reading is the highest form of literary endeavour, whose home lies beyond Mount Fuji and beyond the Sea of Endless Ice. A man or a woman who has read a thousand poems is allowed a sheet of parchment upon which to write a single haiku, thus maintaining the balance and harmony between that which has been written and that which can be read. A man or a woman who has read a thousand stories is entitled to transcribe the events of a (fictional) day. Thus we aim, within a further nine generations, to bestow upon our elders the ultimate gift of Eternal Sleep in The Land Where All Books Have Been Read. However, even in our well-ordered land a dissident voice is not always unheard and one night, not so long ago, an unauthorised story appeared, nailed to the Shrine of the Silent Reader. It was brief (do we not value brevity?) and went something like this –
As the first old man to have bought and read every book ever written or printed, the first man to be released from the curse of Infinite Reading, turned his back on his home and his family and set one foot on the bridge that separated our village from the City of Eternal Sleep, a girl, his grand-daughter, broke free from her mother and ran towards him with a sheet of paper in her hand, shouting, “So-Fu! So-Fu! I have written a story for you. Please come back and read it!”
It was signed TSUNDOKU. May his name burn in the lava of a thousand volcanoes and never know a day of peace!