Value of collecting unread books is tsundoku
BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - December 15, 2019 - 12:00am

I belong to that minority group of the population that still loves books printed on paper. Unfortunately, or fortunately, I belong to an even smaller minority that is afflicted with a rare “disease”. In the words of Dickinson: If I go to a bookstore to check a price  I walk out with three books I probably didn’t know existed before... the problem is that my book buying habit outpaces my ability to read them.”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of the book Black Swan believes surrounding ourselves with unread books enriches our lives as they remind us of all we don’t know. This is true if you are one of those book buyers who buy books with every intention of reading them only to let them linger on the shelf. 

Although I have had this habit since my high school days, I never knew the proper English term to describe the habit. Recently I came across a Japanese term that perfectly describes this habit. The word is “tsundoku” which means “buying books and not reading them; letting books pile up unread on shelves or floors or nighstand.” I predict this Japanese term will someday be as popular as karaoke and tsunami. 

Nassim Taleb provides the best reason for people who keep asking whether one has read all the books in a person’s personal library. He wrote in his book The Black Swan:

The writer Umberro Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopaedic, insightful, and non-dull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing 30,000 books), and separate visitors into two categories: those who react either “Wow signore professor Eco, what a library you have. How many of those books have you read?... and the others – a very small minority – who get the point that a library is not an ego boosting appendages but a research tool. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means allow 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 as an antilibrary.

Lincoln Steffens once wrote that a good library is filled  with mostly unread books. He said: “Because we underestimate the value of what we don’t know and overvalue what we do know, we fundamentally overvalue what we do know, we fundamentally misunderstand the likelihood of surprises.”

The person who has a lot of unread books, Taleb calls the “anti-scholar.” He or she is: “...someone who focuses on the unread books, and makes an attempt to treat his knowledge as a treasure or even a possession, or even self esteem enhancement device-a sceptical empiricist” – a person who supports the theory that all knowledge is based on experience derived from the senses. Most scientists are sceptical empiricists by nature.

Jessica Stillman, a writer, talks of intellectual humility in her defense of unread book collections. She says that these unexplored or unread ideas motivate us to continue reading, continue learning, and never be comfortable that we know enough.

People who lack this intellectual humility or this yearning to acquire new books or visit a bookstore may acquire a sense of pride or fullfilment at having acquired a personal collection. However, such a library has the usefulness of a wall mounted trophy which ends up as a decoration only. It is a living, growing resource we can learn from until we are 80 years old or, if we are lucky, even a few years.

There have been many studies on the benefits derived from reading. Children who grew up in homes with a collection of between 80 and 350 books showed improved literacy numeracy, and information communication technology skills. Reading also boosts cognitive abilities by making reading a part of life’s routines and practices.  I owe a debt of gratitude to my paprents who kept a collection of books in our home; and, even in our grade school days encouraged us to start our own collection of books.

Reading also benefits adults like reducing stress, satisfy social connection needs, bolster social skills and empathy and boost cognitive skills. Reading nonfiction is correlated with success and high achievement, help us better understand ourselves and the world, and gives you the edge in a highly competitive world. Top Fortune 500 CEOs in the USA recommend reading 60 books a year. Personalities like Barack Obama, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates issue an annual list of favorite books. Stillman writes: “All those books you haven’t read  are indeed a sign of your ignorance. But if you know how ignorant you are, you’re way ahead of the vast majority of people.”

While writing this column I started compiling all the books that I have not read. Here is one book I fully intend to read this Christmas holidays. A GOOD PROVIDER IS ONE WHO LEAVES: One Family and Migration in the 21st Century by Jason DeParle 2019 is the story of a Filipino migrant family. This the first book on a Philippine experience that, as far as I know was recommended by Financial Times. 

A library should serve to remind us of what we do not know.

Creative writing classes

for kids and teens

Young Writers’ Hangout on December 14 with Rin Chupeco (1:30 pm-3 pm; stand-alone session) at Fully Booked BGC. For details and registration,  email writethingsph@gmail.com.

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Email: elfrencruz@gmail.com

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