Enough is Never Enough: Bibliomania, Tsundoku & Modern Book Collecting

book collecting
(Photo by Oliver James)

By Oliver James

The history of book ownership is well-documented. Our love of books as objects has existed for centuries. Out of such love are born the terms, ‘bibliomania’ and ‘tsundoku.’ The differences between these words provide interesting insights into the objects that adorns so many of our living rooms, studies and libraries.

First, the words in question:

‘Bibliomania’ is the ‘rage for collecting and possessing books’ (OED). As with all obsessive forms of collection, it can often be a symptom of OCD, although I will be addressing its less invasive form, rather than the psychological illness. The term itself is far from modern, finding its way into popular use in the mid-18th Century.

‘Tsundoku’ is a more curious term. Combining the words ‘tsumu’ (pile up) and ‘doku’ (reading), the Japanese expression refers to a habit of collecting books and allowing them to accumulate, without reading them. The term has seen a striking increase in usage over the past 5 years or so.

google trends
(Google Trends)

Do the two terms mean the same thing? Both a bibliomaniac and someone engaging in tsundoku collect books. The BBC argues that the difference lies in the motivation: bibliomania is the intention to create a book collection, tsundoku describes the intention to read books, prompting accidental collection. Whilst this certainly marks a distinction, I feel there is more to consider here. Why the emergence of this traditional Japanese term in the West?

Why is book collecting, suddenly, accidental?

The most obvious explanation is modern life. People are increasingly turning to more instant forms of entertainment. A range of studies point to a decline in reading, particularly in young people, and as a result, the number of unread books in a collection inevitably increases.

But if books are playing an ever-decreasing role in our daily lives, why collect them at all? This might have something to do with modern materialism. By way of example: The Folio Society. Established in 1947, this producer of beautifully bound, richly illustrated versions of classic novels consistently sees annual revenue figures above £20m, selling over 60 separate collections per year.

These books are, however, priced accordingly. For example, a ‘standard’ edition of Herbert’s Sci-Fi classic, Dune, will set you back about £6 on Amazon. The Folio Society version, though, will cost an eye-watering £75. The value of books as reading material is perhaps falling, but their value as objects remains as high as ever.

One problem still remains: not all books in a tsundoko collection are elaborate, expensive items; many are simply off-the-shelf, second-hand bargains. Does book ownership have something to do with guilt, then? Perhaps we hope for a passive absorption of intellect through piles of unread books, as though the status of being ‘well-read’ outweighs the personal fulfilment to be experienced through reading.

I suppose it depends on intrinsic motivation. To be owned, a book must appeal to our ego, but to be read, it must appeal to our psyche.

In the words of Frank Zappa:

‘So many books, so little time.’

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