On Partially Read Books.

Kevin Mims begins a NY Times Book Review essay by citing Jessica Stillman (a personal library too big to get through in a lifetime “isn’t a sign of failure or ignorance,” but rather “a badge of honor”) and Nassim Nicholas Taleb (it is the things we don’t know, and therefore can’t see coming, that tend to shape our world most dramatically), then continues:

Taleb argues that a personal library “should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates and the currently tight real-estate market 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 an antilibrary.”

I don’t really like Taleb’s term “antilibrary.” A library is a collection of books, many of which remain unread for long periods of time. I don’t see how that differs from an antilibrary. A better term for what he’s talking about might be tsundoku, a Japanese word for a stack of books that you have purchased but not yet read. My personal library is about one-tenth books I have read and nine-tenths tsundoku. […]

In truth, however, the tsundoku fails to describe much of my library. I own a lot of story collections, poetry anthologies and books of essays, which I bought knowing I would probably not read every entry. People like Taleb, Stillman and whoever coined the word tsundoku seem to recognize only two categories of book: the read and the unread. But every book lover knows there is a third category that falls somewhere between the other two: the partially read book. Just about every title on a book lover’s reference shelves, for instance, falls into this category. No one reads the American Heritage Dictionary or Roget’s Thesaurus from cover to cover. One of my favorite books is John Sutherland’s “The Stanford Companion to Victorian Fiction.” It’s a fascinating, witty and very opinionated survey of Victorian England’s novels and novelists, from the famous (Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray) to the justifiably forgotten (Sutherland describes the novels of Tom Gallon as “sub-Dickensian fiction of sentiment and lowlife in London, typically written in an elliptical, rather graceless style”). I’ve owned the book for 20 years and derived great enjoyment from it, but I doubt I’ll ever manage to read every word of it or of dozens of other reference books on my shelves.

He has more to say about “the twilight zone of the partially read”; I find it odd that his primary association is with reference works rather than books you simply stop in the middle of, but his point is certainly valid. (I leave it to my Japanese-speaking readers to say whether tsundoku is a real word and means what it’s alleged to mean.) And the mention of dictionaries prompts me to link to this essay by Michael Adams about their history and uses; here’s a sample paragraph:

After World War II, colleges and universities nationwide required that new students buy the American College Dictionary or the Merriam-Webster Collegiate. Like grammar handbooks, dictionaries supported learning in introductory writing courses, and, for consistency, students and faculty, it was thought, should all refer to the same one. Dictionaries became an icon of the college experience, certified the intellectual status of their owners, and marked the rising social tide of higher education. When you walked into a room and saw a dictionary, you saw it as proof that the owner belonged to your tribe, though, to be sure, you also had to find certain novels, poems, or political manifestos on shelves nearby.

There’s lots of information there, as well as some great illustrations.


  1. Stu Clayton says

    When I was learning German at UT Austin, I had a course with a German math professor, name of Jörg Blatter I think, who had offered to help me get into the Uni Bonn when he returned. I asked him to recommend a good German/German dictionary. His answer: we don’t need those in Germany, we learn all the words in school.

  2. Ha!

  3. Stu Clayton says

    He may have been joking. At any rate, I was not impressed. He had the personality of a little strutting rooster.

  4. Presumably he’d heard of the Wörterbuch Duden.

  5. Stu Clayton says

    He read it from cover to cover as Easter weekend homework. None of this dipping and dawdling.

  6. Well, yes, it makes perfect sense as a pun in Japanese.

    積む means ‘to pile up’, ‘stack up’, with a sense of neatness. It’s used in the word 積み木 tsumi-ki referring to children’s building blocks.

    〜ておく -te oku is a verbal collocation, consisting of the -te form of the verb plus the auxiliary verb おく oku ‘to place’. The literal meaning is something like ‘doing and placing’, but it actually means ‘do something for later use’.

    For example, 取っておく totte oku (‘taking and placing’) means ‘set aside (for later use)’. 作っておく tsukutte oku (‘making and placing’) means ‘make (a dish, etc.) for later use (consumption)’. There is even 置いておく oite oku ‘putting and placing’ meaning ‘place something somewhere because you’ll be using it later’, but more usually used in the sense ‘put aside for the moment because it’s interfering with the discussion’.

    So 積んでおく tsunde oku means ‘put neatly in a pile for later use’.

    Colloquially tsunde oku is pronounced tsundoku.

    Someone has had the bright idea that you could make a pun with this. The second component doku can potentially be written with the character 読 doku meaning ‘read’. 読 doku occurs in words like 読書 dokusho, meaning ‘reading books’. 音読 on-doku (or on-yomi) refers to the on-reading of Chinese characters, generally descended from old Chinese pronunciations. Doku is, in fact, the on-reading of the character 読, so it’s rather forced putting it together with 積ん tsun, which is related to the kun-reading of the character 積 (積む tsumu) — part of a conjugated form no less. But hey, it’s a pun.

    Thus: 積んでおく tsunde oku (i.e. tsundoku) ‘pile up for later use’ is punningly transformed into 積ん読 tsundoku ‘piling up reading’, a nice way of referring to the habit of many book-lovers of buying books ‘to read later’.

  7. Thanks, a very full and satisfying explanation!

  8. I have a hypothesis for why Mims thinks mostly of reference works as the partially read elements of his library. If you start reading a book, whether a novel or a narrative history which is ostensibly meant to be read from beginning to end, but you decide not to finish it, it is easy to feel that the book has failed you. It has not maintained your interest enough to keep you reading. I can easily envision a certain kind of bibliophile who thinks of their library as prototypically made up of books that they can find useful (in some appropriate sense). Useful books can include ones that have been read and found interesting, ones that have not yet been read but are expected to be interesting, and reference books which are only consulted about specific matters. However, novels and histories that were started and not finished have downgraded themselves by failing to prolong the reader’s interest, so they are no longer principal elements of the library.

    Of course, there are numerous levels of exceptions to the scheme I just outlined, but I can still envision it having some hold over the mind. I know that I sometimes think of books that I initially intended to read all the way through but did not manage to finish as less a part of my collection than ones that I have either finished or never begun.

  9. Interesting! There are, of course, books that fall into that category for me, but very often I have simply set them aside, distracted by other enthusiasms, and expect to return to them eventually. Sometimes I do, sometimes not, but I generally retain a clear idea of where I left off, even if it’s been years since I set the book down.

  10. I definitely read several dictionaries from cover to cover.

    That’s actually one of the quickest ways to acquire vast vocabulary in a very short time.

    It’s actually easy when you stop trying to memorize the words and just read it at your usual speed.

  11. Rawley Grau says

    @Bathrobe: “Thus: 積んでおく tsunde oku (i.e. tsundoku) ‘pile up for later use’ is punningly transformed into 積ん読 tsundoku ‘piling up reading’, a nice way of referring to the habit of many book-lovers of buying books ‘to read later’.”

    Thanks for the clear explanation! So a possible (non-punny) English translation would be “to-read stack”? Doesn’t quite have the éclat of “tsundoku”.

  12. My grandfather retired in 1924 at the age of 40 and spent his remaining thirty years reading a large dictionary and making notes in it. My mother’s had it rebound.

  13. I liked reading Yellow pages directories.

    Great therapeutic effect and you learn a lot along the way.

    But never managed to read one from cover from cover, though.

  14. English-speaking kids who are a little too into anime will all know a similar-sounding but (as far as i know) totally unrelated term “tsundere”, which is a stereotypical character trait. It’s one of those slightly creepy words that gets used on message boards a lot, like “waifu”.

    there have been a couple specialized dictionaries I’ve read straight through like novels… I’m probably on my third or fourth cover-to-cover read of Hobson-Jobson, & lately I’ve been falling asleep by reading a few pages of the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism.

  15. For reasons that are not entirely clear, Clark Ashton Smith never went to high school. Instead, he educated himself by reading unabridged dictionaries and the Encyclopedia Brittanica cover to cover. He developed an impressive vocabulary, but he sometimes used words in odd ways, as if he had never encountered them except in the dictionary.

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