Tsundoku: The Joy of Unread Books

by | Feb 22, 2022


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, author, publisher, and collector of 10,000 books.

In the past week, I’ve purchased three books. That’s not completely unusual for me. Since the beginning of 2022, I’ve bought 15 books (or a bit over two a week) and in 2021 I bought 81 (and was given another 10 or so). What I feel guilty about is that I don’t read them all. In 2021 I read 51 books and so far this year I’ve read seven — not enough to keep up with my book acquisition pace.

Last year I came across the concept of tsundoku, which is a combination of two Japanese words: tsunde-oku (to let things pile up) and dokusho (reading books). In other words, it means to buy books, pile them up all over the place, and don’t read them. The Japanese don’t use tsundoku pejoratively; it has a positive connotation, sort of like when we refer to someone as a “bookworm.”

I loved learning that there was a term for this practice of buying more books than you can read. I feel a sense of relief, and because there’s a term for it, and I have permission to continue to buy books at such a pace.

A related concept is that of building an “antilibrary,” a term coined by author Nassim Taleb in his book The Black Swan. Taleb believes that building a collection of unread books is natural for curious, lifelong learners. Here’s what he has to say about building an antilibrary:

Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. [Your] library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.

Let us call an antischolar— someone who focuses on the unread books, and makes an attempt not to treat his knowledge as a treasure, or even a possession, or even a self-esteem enhancement device— a skeptical empiricist.

Taleb’s concept of an antilibrary has stuck with me since I first read about it nearly 15 years ago. As I look at my piles of physical books and scroll through the 600+ titles on my e-reader, I am struck by how much knowledge, and how many stories, are in those unread books that I’ll never read.

Daily, I feel a sense of longing to read all my books (and ones yet to be purchased), but I know that I cannot because my library grows faster than I can read. In 2019, I read 101 books which put a bit of dent in my antilibrary, but reading 101 books felt frantic and dizzying and isn’t something I can keep up with while also having a job and other interests (like writing, friends/family, watching hockey, etc.). Reading about 50 books a year is about the right pace for me at my current stage of life.

What’s tough is choosing what to read next. There are so many choices. What having a library of unread books encourages me to do is to stop reading any book that I don’t think is good. Life is short and there are a lot of books, so we shouldn’t spend our time plowing through books that we don’t enjoy. It’s ok to not finish books — I don’t finish 10-20 books a year that I start.


  1. I love having books — both read and unread — all around me. Except in my bedroom. That bookcase of unread books amps up my already restless mind. Recently I turned all of the books in my bedroom bookcase backward so that I can’t see the spines. I know they are there, but they can wait.

  2. I feel so validated! I collect way too many recipes I’ll never prepare, also- occupational hazard-but it makes me feel good to have the possibility!

  3. My grandmother returned a book to B. Daltons after reading it – said it was the worst book she had ever read and wanted her money back – and she got it! Great IFOD – I’m somewhat guilty.

    • Love that story!

  4. Thank you! I feel so validated.
    My latest source of compulsive acquisition is the Little Free Libraries. Take one while passing one on a walk and later drop off one I’ve read.
    It keeps the net amount of books the same, but adds to the unread pile.

  5. So glad to know there’s a word for it and it’s not pejorative

  6. love to buy books. Received 2 via post so far this week. Even reading mostly electronically — I have real books piled up all around me–
    Thanks for giving me a philosophy to justify my obsession.

  7. This is me. I also own horses which I do not ride or drive nearly as much as I would like or should. Friends and neighbors call them “lawn ornaments” which is a term I cannot dispute. We humans like “stuff” hence the origin of “collectors”. To each his own.


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