Wikipedia defines tsundoku (積ん読) as “the constant act of buying books, but never reading them.” However, in his book 読書の腕前 (The Craft of Reading), 岡崎武志 (Takeshi Okazaki) notes, “If you look closely, you will see that 積ん読 includes the character for ‘to read’ (読む). By simply having the actual book in your room, it is always being read, a little at a time. A professional baseball pitcher always keeps a baseball by his side, and even if he’s not throwing it, he reminds himself of its feel by simply touching it every now and then. So people who avoid 積ん読 will never improve their reading skills.”
In that spirit, I interpret 積ん読 as meaning something more like “the accumulation of books in the happy anticipation of reading them and for the sheer joy of owning them”. Some people are proud of their “just-in-time” inventory strategy when it comes to books, and get rid of their books as soon as they’ve read them. This minimalist style is appealing to me in theory, but I think there are people (myself included) whose lives are so centered on books and reading that they like to be surrounded by books.
They offer up chains of memories that makes us happier people. I walk by a bookshelf on the way to the kitchen and my eye catches on my favorite book by Miyuki Miyabe (火車), setting off a memory of reading amidst the noxious fumes of a kerosene heater in my derelict apartment in Yokohama. Brushing my teeth for the regulation two minutes, I wander out to the bookshelf in my bedroom and plan what to read next, while the sight of しずかな日々(Quiet Days) by 椰月美智子 (Michiko Yazuki) reminds me of the scene where the grandfather makes his slight, lonely grandson an onigiri that is as big as his massive hands, filled with a plump umeboshi. Without my piles of books, read or not, my days would be emptier, I think.
Book-lovers naturally like to read books about books and reading, and Takeshi Okazaki’s book is one of the best I’ve read in this genre. Reading confirms how much I don’t know, which is stimulating rather than discouraging in the hands of the right author. I’m not talking about facts or vocabulary, but the experiences that have been lived in the wider world. Nothing concrete has changed now that I have this fragment, but my own life has gained something intangible.
Okazaki understands this, and he likens this feeling to a long staircase stretching up to the ceiling — climbing to the top improves the view of the world below. Just having progressed from school-aged child to middle-aged man, the view has improved so much for him that he wants to climb even further for a wider view.
I find that reading in Japanese has expanded this view for me. When I began studying Japanese in the early 1990s, the only translations available in even large city bookstores were works by Junichiro Tanizaki, Yasunari Kawabata, and Yukio Mishima. Later, Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto joined their ranks on the shelves, and now mysteries by Natsuo Kirino, Miyuki Miyabe and Keigo Higashino are gaining fans. But this is jus a small proportion of what you will find in Japanese bookstores, and I have found authors and books that might never be translated into English, but that make every hour spent studying kanji more than worthwhile.
I reach for the Naoki Prize (awarded to works of popular fiction) winners more than books given the Akutagawa Prize (for “pure” literature). A book with 本屋 (bookstore) — or better yet, 古本屋 (used or antiquarian book store) — or 食堂 (homestyle restaurant or cafeteria) in the title will always find a place on my shelves (and the number of books meeting this description in Japanese bookstores always surprises and charms me). The majority of the books I will write about here have not been translated into English, but I hope that the stories I share stand on their own and expand perceptions of the lives lived in Japan.