The Friday Fillip: The Unexamined Book

It’s just shy of two months since Christmas, and half a dozen gift books, real books, are staring me in the face. Unread. Unopened. Lodged, in fact, atop a pile of other neglected and unread books on the table — a towering stack of reproach.

credit: FutUndBeid, Flickr

credit: FutUndBeid, Flickr

That’s the thing with unread books. They haunt you until you open them. They glare, stiff-spined. They upset coffee cups and martini glasses. They fall with bangs off bedside tables in the night. And the muttering, snuffling, wolf whistling, whining, and all round hailing from the bolder, more importunate tomes can get downright unnerving.

The Japanese, I learn, have a word for this: tsundoku (積ん読), leaving bought books unread and piling up. I suspect that we who speak English feel too guilty about the practice to coin a word of our own and will do what we generally do in such cases, which is adopt the foreign word as a means of adverting to the misbehaviour while at the same time keeping it arm’s length and a little more away. (Where’s the blunt Saxon tongue when you need it? On the other hand, old English terms for bad stuff, charming though it was, could get a tad clunky: witness the 14th century “againbite of inwit” for “remorse.”)

And as if . . . tsundoku were not enough, I have been known to get books from the library as well as from the bookshop. Toronto’s library system is a marvel and quite wicked in the easy way it allows you to acquire books even when you’ve clamped down hard on your wallet. The whole catalogue awaits online; two clicks and you’ve ordered a book — or three; a phone call in a few days tells you that your choice(s) can be picked up at your local branch; a five minute walk, in my case, and voilà, the stack grows higher. Only, now there’s a time limit ticking. Read me quick, the library books cry out; read me quick or you’ll have wasted all that public effort performed just for your benefit.

(There’s always one, though, isn’t there? The following came online just as I was scheduling this post. Here’s poet and librarian Phillip Larkin:

The existence of public libraries was kept from me as long as possible (the knowledge would, it was thought, interfere with my studies), but when the secret broke at last, I rapidly became what in those days was an especially irritating kind of borrower, who brought back in the evening the books he had borrowed in the morning and read in the afternoon.

Found in my feed of the really worthwhile poetry blog, Anecdotal Evidence in an entry on the public library.)

Book misery doesn’t stop here. At least, it doesn’t for me. No, I struggle not just with tsundoku and borrowoe, but with the Protestant read ethic as well. Perhaps you suffer too. Having begun to read a book I feel an obligation to see it through to the end, no matter how difficult the trip might be. I’ve been practicing smacking bad books shut at a point past page 70 and either returning them to the library or giving them to an enemy. I can’t say I’m doing very well, but it has been thirty-eight days and seven hours since I last forced myself to plough through boring prose to the end. Take it one page at a time, I’ve been told. There is hope.

And part of that hope may lie in the terrible possibility of ebooks. (Feels like going over to the dark side, like becoming a moustachioed Nietzschean shouting that the print god is dead.) Think of it, though: no actual stacks wobbling alarmingly at you; no unhappy cries for attention (at least when your device is powered down); and no borrowoe to speak of, because the delivery of an ebook from the library involves next to no public effort at all and — here’s a bonus — a borrowed ebook simply disappears from you device if your time runs out. Poof! Sad, perhaps, but not guilt-inducing. As well, I feel somehow less . . . evil if I terminate an ebook short of the very end, akin perhaps to the difference between terminating a robot and a real person.

There are books waiting to be read, so I must leave you here. But before you, too, hustle off to shrink the stack, take a moment to appreciate this last bit, this Fillip’s fillip, lagniappe, envoi:

Penguin Books, one of the world’s largest publishers of real books, is celebrating its 80th anniversary in a special way. It’s offering you Little Black Classics, 80 ebooks of some great works of the past, at $2 a pop and via a charming, cunning website, proving, I suppose, that you can have it both ways and that there’s no need to see ebooks as antithetical to or curative of your tsundoku.


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