I came across this fascinating word in The Huffington Post’s Arts and Culture section. I can’t stand The Huff’s politics and social biases but they do have a fine Book and Arts sections.
The article is by a Katherine Brooks, titled “There’s A Japanese Word For People Who Buy More Books Than They Can Actually Read.” Now obviously that would catch my eye, if you’ve learned anything about me. From her article:
Book hoarding is a well-documented habit.
In fact, most literary types are pretty proud of the practice, steadfast in their desire to stuff shelves to maximum capacity. They’re not looking to stop hoarding, because parting with pieces of carefully curated piles is hard and stopping yourself from buying the next Strand staff pick is even harder. So, sorry Marie Kondo, but the books are staying.
The desire to buy more books than you can physically read in one human lifetime is actually so universal, there’s a specific word for it: tsundoku. Defined as the stockpiling of books that will never be consumed, the term is a Japanese portmanteau of sorts, combining the words “tsunde” (meaning “to stack things”) and “oku” (meaning “to leave for a while”).
I refuse to open the links Ms. Brooks provides on the habit of “book hoarding” and especially the link on the rehab therapy that is available—good heavens, there’s actually a syndrome named for it! I refuse to accept I have any neuroses and I’m not going to find out that I do. But I do compulsively buy books, even when I realize I may never read them.
The Japanese have a word for my compulsion. (Does compulsion still imply I have a mental disorder? Heaven forbid.) Tsundoku, pronounced tsoon-doh-koo. Brooks describes the word as a “portmanteau of sorts,” a portmanteau word being a word formed by two words that have been amalgamated into one. Which is different than a compound, where two words are joined together. A classic example of a portmanteau word is “smog” formed from “smoke” and “fog.” A classic example of a word compound is “paperclip,” formed from joining “paper” and “clip” together.
I don’t know Japanese to be even remotely knowledgeable, but it strikes me that tsundoku is a compound not a portmanteau, despite dropping the “e” from the end of the initial part of the compound, “tsunde.” I’ll let the Japanese linguists figure that one out.
Back to Ms. Brooks’ article:
Tsundoku has no direct synonym in English, Oxford Dictionaries clarified in a blog post, defining the word as “the act of leaving a book unread after buying it, typically piling it up together with other such unread books.” An informative subreddit provides even more context, explaining that “the tsundoku scale” ranges from just one unread book to a serious hoard. “Everyone is most likely to be ‘tsundokursed’ one way or the other,” it warns.
The blog Other-Worldly, a blog about strange and unusual words, defines tsundoku best:
(n.) buying books and not reading them; letting books pile up unread on shelves or floors or nightstands.
Or like me in plastic storage boxes in the basement. I swear, I’m not crazy. I swear it, believe me, I’m not.