Tsundoku and Lost Words

On Saturday, we visited The Sill, on Hadrian’s Wall.  We went to look at the Lost Spells exhibition.  It’s mesmerising in the incantations, word weaving, and illustration.  Who couldn’t be drawn into the delight of the Jackdaw?

… Always with the comeback,

coal-black crackerjack,

joker of the haystack,

ready with the wisecrack

giving it the backchat!

Someone gave me a set of the Lost Words postcards (also by Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris) as a gift.  They’re a reminder of the many, many things about the lives of other – flora and fauna – that I know next to nothing about.  I’m didn’t buy the book Lost Words at the exhibition, although it was there, as I know my daughter has it and I’m going to borrow it from her.

I bought the book of lost spells to give to someone as a birthday present.  Then started reading it myself.  I may keep it as a self-gift.  The thing is, will I read it again, once I’ve read it once?  Do I want it on my bookshelf, or is it better handed on for someone else to enjoy? I rather think I will read this one again and again to my grandchildren.  I think they will love to know, for example, that the oak is the waiting tree.  But I don’t know that they will – I will read it to them and see.  For myself I rarely re-read books, but often reread poetry (and maybe I will find and use the lost spells).  But I like having physical books around.  Read, unread and re-read. 

Digital copies don’t have at all the same standing and allure as a physical book with pages to turn.  And audio ones have to have really good readers to capture my attention.  (One I’m currently listening to The Marriage Portrait, has an excellent reader, Genevieve Gaunt, who is helped by Maggie O’Farrell’s equally excellent writing style). 

I have many hundreds of books – including my secondary school, hymnbook, some of my favourite childhood stories, Teddy’s Year with the Fairies, is one – why I liked it baffles me now, books from my various courses of study over the years, novels I have and haven’t read, books people have given me, and shelves of poetry books.   

I’m attracted to bookshops and have to steel myself not to buy something on impulse in case I never read it.  I pick things on impulse from the library and return them if they don’t work for me.   One of my friends took the opposite tack to me and made a resolution one year never to leave a bookshop without buying a book.   

Sometimes I wonder whether to give away the read books that I’m unlikely to read again.  Sometimes I do that in an effort to free up bookshelf space.  I don’t give away the unread books, in case I am moved to read them sometime.   Recent ones in that category include:  Sapiens, Humankind, and Entangled Life.  (Is it that I don’t read non-fiction unrelated to courses I am taking?).

Then this week I came across the Japanese word ‘tsundoku’.   It’s not a lost word or a lost spell, but a word found and appropriated into English usage.  Apparently, it means ‘leaving a book unread after buying it, typically piled up together with other unread books.’  Whether this is true or not, I don’t know.  It seems to have some credibility, but maybe it follows a longish list of Japanese words that ‘have been repurposed to lend an aura of ancient wisdom—and exoticism—to banal ideas.’ (Another Japanese import is Miyawaki – a method of forest growing named after a Japanese botanist, and who hasn’t heard of Japanese consultant Marie Kondo and her Life Changing Magic of Tidying – not as far as I remember – involving spells).

Kevin Dickinson, of The Big Think, begins his piece on tsundoku, saying  ‘according to statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb, these unread volumes represent what he calls an “antilibrary,” and he believes our antilibraries aren’t signs of intellectual failings. Quite the opposite.  …  These shelves of unexplored ideas propel us to continue reading, continue learning, and never be comfortable that we know enough. Jessica Stillman calls this realization intellectual humility.’  (That is the willingness to accept that you might be wrong and to not get defensive when arguments or information that’s unfavourable to your position comes to light.)

I read Stillman’s piece.  She is of the view that an ‘antilibrary is a powerful reminder of your limitations — the vast quantity of things you don’t know, half-know, or will one day realize you’re wrong about. By living with that reminder daily you can nudge yourself toward the kind of intellectual humility that improves decision-making and drives learning.  

The word ‘antilibrary’ sounds a little harsh to me it’s too binary – library or antilibrary.  Tsundoku sounds a kinder word.  Dickinson tells us, ‘Its morphology combines tsunde-oku (letting things pile up) and dokusho (reading books).’  I wonder if it covers the skimming or dipping into books?   The unread books on shelves are rarely completely unread – they’ve got there because you’ve read the title, maybe flicked through a few pages, and got enough information to make a decision on whether to buy it.  (If it’s a gift, you still are likely to read the cover and blurb and decide whether or not to read it).

Is there a word – Japanese or other – for sampling books before deciding whether or not to buy/read them?  Or will tsundoku cover that?  I’d like to think that tsundoku does cover it. In which case I can also use it in relation to another stash of books I have.   It’s on my Kindle, except the books there are not the full books.  They are all sample chapters of books I think I would like to read sometime, or that people have recommended, or that I have read a review of.  I like the sample chapters because they are short enough to read on the bus.  They give me a quick flavour of the book.  I can decide whether I want to buy the physical copy of the whole thing.  I’ve found I do tend to read the sample chapters but rarely then go on to buy the full book.  Thus, they are sampled but unread in full. 

Another way of thinking about sampled, barely skimmed, and unread books, is as lost words – we don’t know what knowledge or insights they might give us, because we haven’t found and explored them.  They are there as possibilities and serve to remind me, at least,  that the more books I have the less I know. Or, perhaps, like the jackdaw dipping down to ‘ransack a knick-knack or snatch up a gimcrack’ we are stashing books just to have the stash?

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