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Image / Living / Culture

Let’s talk about the books we buy but never read


by Jennifer McShane
13th Sep 2020
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Did you know you’re likely sitting on top of a literary graveyard? That’s right, in your own home. Maybe yours is in the press in the kitchen that never gets used, an old box on top of the wardrobe or more obvious – the stack in the bedroom gathering dust. These are the books we bought with the best of intentions, but, for whatever reason, never got around to reading.

This writer reads a massive amount of books every month, so it doesn’t bode well that I’m saying that even I have judged and bought the occasional book, not entirely based on its cover (though near enough), in this way. But, I’m not alone.

That’s right; there’s a term for those of us that end up with unintentional book collections and leave them unread: Tsundoku, the Japanese definition for that precise pile of books you guiltily glance at every day, but never thumb through. It primarily is used to describe a person who owns a lot of unknown literature. I came across it when this week, a friend bemoaned the small fortune she spent on books, that she never ended up looking at again.

Piling books up

The word “doku” can be used as a verb to mean “reading,” according to Prof Andrew Gerstle, who teaches pre-modern Japanese texts at the University of London. The “tsun” in “tsundoku” originates in “tsumu” – a word meaning “to pile up.” So, when put together, “tsundoku” has the meaning of buying reading material and piling it up.

So, why do we tend to buy and then leave them unopened? When I asked around, much of the responses were very similar; plenty of classic titles were bought, with very few read. Lauren, Deputy Editor of IMAGE Interiors, says she’s guilty of buying “tonnes” of titles and leaving them aside, for a few reasons, the first being an ascetic one: “I have a beautifully bound Pride and Prejudice that I bought but never opened because I don’t want to break the spine!”

Another common reason was mood; novels undoubtedly take you on various emotional journies, so it does stand to reason that some of the perhaps heavier classics, require the right mindset before attempting to tackle them. ” I have lots that I want to read but want to be in the mood for, like Jung Chang’s Wild Swans – it just sits on my bedside, but I think I need a six month holiday to convince me to start it!”

As were the titles we feel we “should read” for cultural significance or because they’re so revered in publishing history. IMAGE Contributing Editor Meg Walker previously said she has a pile stacked for this reason: “I have a mountain of to read books. In there would be the Edna O’Brien’s, Anne Enright etc … i.e. the books I feel I should read one day.”

Below are three of my top bought-but-as-yet-never-read novels:

Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

Why I bought it: I’m a romantic at heart and I’ve always loved and known of the story and the way this it’s told over years; it depicts the complexities of love very well, nothing is as simple as just meeting and falling in love because life and its complications and choices made have a knock-on effect on all the central characters

Why I didn’t read it: A beautiful BBC adaptation from years ago basically ruined the book for me; I loved the adaptation because it simplified the more complex parts of the novel (its narrative structure is confusing and can be tough to follow for long periods of time) and told the romance so well on screen, that when I need a hit, so to speak, I just watch that.

Sex and The City by Candace Bushnell

Why I bought it: Just as the series was taking off, I bought the book. I had heard all the reviews; how she changed the way taboo subjects regarding sex were spoken about and was intrigued.

Why I didn’t read it: But then, naturally, I got caught up in the frenzied success of the show and the fashion; and the book just wasn’t going to reel me in the same way at that age. It’s still on a shelf, and one day, I’ll get to it.

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

Why I bought it: It was recommended to me by an English teacher, who knew I’d love it. I was going through my ‘classics’ phase of reading and hadn’t yet seen the film of the same name. She told me to read the book before I think about seeing the movie, but my dad insisted I sit down with him and watch it.

Why I didn’t read it: In two words? Ralph Fiennes. Or you know, I could really say it was because of my dad, but I tell people my crush of Fiennes that meant I had a near-obsession with the film. For me, the movie was so beautifully made that, in my head, I’ve always put it in that rare ‘better than the book’ category – which isn’t at all fair as I’ve not read the book! One of these days, I’ll finally see if it measures up to a film I hold so dear.


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