Untranslatable: ‘Tsundoku’

April 21, 2022, 10:30 p.m.

Content warning: this article contains references to suicidal thoughts. The author has requested anonymity to protect the identity of a family member undergoing a mental health struggle. If you or someone you know is in need of support, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

Tsundoku (Japanese: 積ん読) is defined as acquiring reading materials but letting them pile up in one’s home without reading them.

I go to the Package Lockers once again, too many times to count on one hand this week. This time it’s Pulitzer Prize–winning author Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit from the Goon Squad” greeting me (retail therapy has become my new coping mechanism). I tear the blue and white packaging along the perforated line.

When I go back to my dorm room, rather than opening the cover and delving into the story in front of me, I stack it on my bookshelf. It joins a growing family. “The Fire Next Time” from yesterday, “We the Animals” from the day before, Ocean Vuong poetry from the day before that and “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” from winter quarter. They all sit next to a Borrow Direct book from Johns Hopkins University and several books from City Lights Bookstore. All have one thing in common — none have been finished, their spines yet to be broken in.

The stacks that sit on my shelf and desk serve as a constant reminder for a particular failure, failure that I ponder as I continue to gravitate towards hours of scrolling — why can’t I read books anymore? What happened?

Is it the fact that I am a busy college student — that socializing, classes and clubs have gotten in the way of old hobbies? New interests have taken the forefront, I guess. But even then, the hours I sit on my bed and do nothing could be spent with a book in my hand, especially with the plenty that just sit there and collect dust. After all, reading can be used as a form of relaxation. Yet when I get the chance, even on mundane summer days, I always end up doing something else, like a walk in the sun or a chat with friends. I do want to read, though — it’s not as if it’s a looming, undesirable task.

Is it a gifted kid burnout? I used to be able to read 100 pages an hour from “Percy Jackson” novels and other Young Adult fiction. Even if the texts have gotten harder in school, I still can’t seem to begin reading books that are raved about across BookTok. Even if I do read, it’s short stories that are able to hold my attention. I avoid classics and books that use words such as “visage,” “clamor” and “undulate.”

Is it because I am such a bad English major, duck syndrome be damned? My tote bag is full of books to give the perception that I’m inching my way through a story among classes, when in reality they’re there to fill space. My peers’ Goodreads profiles are continuously updated with new books and are far more knowledgeable about texts and authors. I pretend to do the reading if it’s too difficult to understand and fake it in class discussions. To my peers, I laugh at their references to literature I don’t understand. I have yet to read a single line of Joan Didion.

Is it the fact that my reading comprehension has gone downhill? Is it due to the fact that I have had less time to practice reading and pages can take hours to get through, that I read as fast as a video on 0.5 speed? Or that the quirks I’ve always had when I read — such as not being able to retain information and forcing myself to reread parts over and over — have gotten worse by the day. Is it a sign of an attention disorder? Maybe I should make that Vaden appointment…

Am I just sick of escapism? Stories are the opportunity to live through the eyes of others. Given the fact that I haven’t lived my life normally for the past two years, I want an actual taste of reality.

And beyond that, how can I just ignore the problems in my life and pretend everything is fine when things are falling apart around me? That I just can’t be this aesthetically perfect English major, who can read all the time and bask in literature and walk around in Doc Martens and tote bags and gawk about authors I have no idea about. That I can’t even think of using the energy to transport me into another world because sometimes I don’t want to drag myself out of bed.

That someone I’ve had a rocky relationship with, my brother, an asymptomatic failure in my life, is depressed out of their mind, and that I have learned that they no longer want a life at all. That, while multiple things in my life crumble around me, the stacks of books in my room gets taller and taller with each new online order. Coping.

Stanford Spring is this time of happiness and joy, something I’ve even raved about. I cannot sit around in the sunshine and act like everything is fine all the time. I can certainly believe that the school’s toxic productivity culture mixed with the desire to appear put together is something everyone is sick of living in.

I don’t know how to solve it. All I can offer — sometimes it’s okay to not be the best. Sometimes it’s okay to take a break and not do anything. Sometimes it’s okay to feel whatever you’re feeling, lie around and just breathe. Sometimes it’s okay to engage in a story to clear the mind … but sometimes it’s okay to put down the book, or, in some cases, never start.

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