The Japanese have a term called tsundoku, which refers to the phenomenon of acquiring books and letting them pile up in one's home without reading them.
For many years, I used to feel very guilty about buying new books when I already had unread books on my shelf. As a self-proclaimed minimalist, I’m not someone who hoards. I think long and hard before buying new things, hate excess and wastefulness, and love decluttering. So I found it very hard to accept my compulsion to buy new books while there were still piles of unread ones. However, the fallacy of my rationale was that I equated an unread book with an unused object such as a piece of clothing when that is not the case. My books served very different purposes in my life that I wasn’t taking into account.
First, over the years I have discovered the joy of creating and building a home library. My bookshelves are the centre of my home and my books are my most prized possessions. I put thought and effort into getting books I want to read, even if not immediately. Discovering the Konmari method, devised by Marie Kondo the Japanese organisation and decluttering consultant, helped me to figure this out for myself. Kondo advocates that when we declutter our homes, we need to ask ourselves whether an object sparks joy or serves a purpose. We don’t declutter thinking of what to discard but rather thinking of only keeping those things that speak to the heart. And nothing speaks to my heart more than my books.
Second, I turn to different books at different times: either to find comfort and solace, or for entertainment, or to satisfy some intellectual curiosity. Sometimes, I know exactly what I want to read, but at other times I stand in front of my bookshelf and scan the existing collection to see what speaks to me. So I can’t just buy one book at a time, but rather need a variety of unread books around me.
Third, and this is very important, I strongly believe in supporting authors, publishers and booksellers. Most people don’t realise this but authors, apart from international bestsellers, don’t make a lot of money. To avoid the ‘danger of a single story’, as warned by Chimamanda Adichie in her famous Ted talk, the best way we can support independent publishers and small presses to publish a diversity of authors, is by buying their books.
While I strongly believe there is no such thing as too many books, I do think we need to periodically visit our shelves and take stock. Something that brought us joy a year ago, may not speak to us any more. Or that book we have been planning to read for the past five years but somehow never get around to, let’s face it: we are probably never going to read it. So there is no harm in passing it on to someone else who may. I declutter my shelves every few months and either donate my unwanted books to a book swap or charity initiative such as Book Hero; or sell them on bookends.ae, an online platform for used books in the UAE.
With the start of the new year, it is a great time to bring clarity, a lightness of being and focus to our lives through decluttering our homes. When it comes to books, ask yourself if they spark joy and serve a purpose. If not, pass them on and let your tsundoku bring joy to someone else.
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