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All those books you bought but haven’t read have an unexpected benefit: humility

I’m late to the table with an idea that seems to have gone viral: Tsundoku, a wonderful Japanese concept that refers to all of the books we buy but have not yet read.

(What I find lovely about the Japanese language is that each syllable is pronounced as it sounds, so feel free to sound it out and you’ve got it.)

Tsundoku (https://bigthink.com/personal-growth/do-i-own-too-many-books) is the act of having more books than you have read in your own library, and hoping that someday you will read them, but knowing you might not.

Nassim Nicoloas Taleb, author of The Black Swan, says it’s a way to keep fresh the topics and worlds we want to inhabit through those books once we get around to reading them. In fact, Taleb says the unread books in your library are more valuable than the ones you’ve read. It reminds us of all that we don’t know and can keep us humble along the way.

Author Jessica Stillman (https://www.inc.com/jessica-stillman/why-you-should-stop-feeling-bad-about-all-those-books-you-buy-dont-read.html) argues that the more intelligent you are, the more likely you’ll be to admit doubt or lack of knowledge — and in turn, the faster you’ll learn.

Nancy Napier.jpg
Nancy Napier

The opposite is what’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect, when you think you know more than you do and are arrogant about it, but because of your incompetence, you’ll never admit needing to learn anything. So having a lot of books you haven’t read keeps us alert to all that we still want to learn.

A few months ago, the website Atlas Obscura asked readers about their tsundoku habits — how many books they own that they’ve not read and how they stack and store them. Some people counted eight on their “to be read list.” Others had over 100.

I wish the site had also asked how people decide which books to read when. I find that as my mood shifts, my reading preferences shift — I’m on a tear right now reading business leadership-failure books, like Bad Blood and Zucker. What’s in your Tsundoku pile?

Nancy Napier is a Boise State University distinguished professor. nnapier@boisestate.edu

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