Skip to main content

Books that are us: The art of tsundoku

By June 7, 2019No Comments

Source : The Hindu-Sunday Magazine



Rereading in the time of ‘tsundoku’

Some time last year, a Japanese word went viral. I discovered it in a BBC article, but you could have found it in a variety of sources: tsundoku, translated there as “buying reading material and piling it up”, that is, not reading it. As happens with foreign words acquired out of their cultural context and made the new user’s very own, it has meant different things to different folks.

It could mean, for instance, what the headline of that BBC article said: “The art of buying books and never reading them.” This changed the meaning from the translation within the column. Are these accumulated books piled up specifically to be never read, or are they the outcome of buying more books when you already haven’t read so many books on your shelves and when you are not certain you will get around any time soon to the new books being acquired?

Art of failing

Either way, for a while there was a collective sigh of relief; it blew away the guilt of hoarding half-read or unopened books. For me, in fact, the imagery was not of those stylistically and copiously hoarded books that flood the social media space with hashtags like #bookstagram. It was freedom from the nagging guilt about unaddressed reading lists or about a book borrowed and unread. In a culture of endless distractions, this new word, tsundoku, that most of us never quite got the measure of, seemed to condone our shortening attention spans — as if our social media, channel-surfing, Netflix-driven distractedness was not the problem that kept us from getting to the book at hand. Failing to read a book that we had made the effort to procure, it seemed, was an “art” (or “act”, making it sound somewhat less virtuous) that harked back to the time before smartphones, almost as if it were part of the human condition.

In other words, why be guilty? The very existence of the term tsundoku appeared to be a counter to the anxiety about falling behind that comes from seeing columns about the masses of books someone famous is reading, or the weekly book review pages brimming with posts on new publications that promise to enhance our understanding of the world around us and the new novels that will surely transform the way we see ourselves. It offered a survival hack: put the book on your shelf or just on your reading list, and get to it at your own pace.

Diminishing returns

But my conveniently repurposed definition of tsundoku, of course, did not hold for long. The excuse-making behind this adoption of the word had to show. As it did once again this week upon reading the latest issue of Granta, its “40 Birthday Special”. A doorstopper at 448 pages, it has selections from issues between 1979 and 2013. To read them is to be reminded about how so many of my generation discovered great writers in literary magazines like Granta.

It is a reminder of how there was no distraction from the real thing — if you wanted to read something by Bruce Chatwin, you went to his text; there were no Instagram posts with the book invitingly photographed alongside a cup of coffee, flowers, etc. to be lost in instead. As a substitute for reading a book or an essay, you couldn’t inhale the text from blogposts about it. What point could there be at the time to acquire a book just to keep it on the bookshelf unread?

This is not to romanticise the past. As the current editor of Granta, Sigrid Rausing, reminds us, the publication was in the early years “startlingly male” — as could be said about the literary world in general. The opening selection in the anniversary issue is ‘Cousins’ by the British writer Angela Carter from the Autumn 1980 volume.

A photograph of her typewritten letter to the then editor, Bill Buford, along with the submission is revealing. It has the clarification that she had failed to adequately “cross the t’s and dot the i’s” on purpose because the the story “is meant to be read plain and clumsy”. Clearly apropos a previous letter from Buford, she goes on to say: “Glad you liked the [John] Updike review. Does he, and [Philip] Roth, et al, realise how sexist they are? It beats me.”

In tracing a 40-year arc, the anniversary issue is an invitation to reread familiar writers — including Kazuo Ishiguro, Primo Levi, Ved Mehta, Edward Said, Gabriel García Márquez — with the selection at hand as the vantage point. Is there a word for a work that triggers rereading?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.