There is something heavy laying in your lap. No, it isn’t crushing your legs. No, you aren’t at a loss of breath trying to lift it up. What I am talking about is a different kind of heaviness — a mental heaviness. And the thing on your lap is a mere paperback novel, weighing less than a pound.
It is 9 a.m. on a summer day in 2008, and I am curled up on my periwinkle comforter lined with pastel butterflies and rainbows, Mary Pope Osborne’s “The Knight at Dawn,” the second book of the “Magic Tree House” series, in my hands. By 4 p.m., I have finished the novel, a whole 80-pager, granted, but riveting nonetheless.
A few weeks later, I find myself in the same position — lying atop my comforter with an open book above my head. A new one this time, Jeanne Birdsall’s “The Penderwicks” has taken my attention. I wish I was the fifth sister of the Penderwick family, exploring the Massachusetts peninsula while attracting unruly adventures along the way. I later find that I like this book series so much that after I have read and reread it, I listen to it via audiobook, plugged into my turquoise iPod Nano. The characters come alive once more, and I don’t have to search in vain for a new series to fall into — I can just relive “The Penderwicks” again.
Finally, I have grown into maturity. I am in middle school now and have arrived at Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson” series — the pièce de résistance of Western literature. In contrast to Osborne’s sub-100 page novel, Riordan’s “Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief” spans a whole 377 pages, making it one of the lengthiest reading endeavors I have yet accomplished. Unbothered, I flip page after page and soon find myself ready to move on to Riordan’s spinoff series, “The Heroes of Olympus.”
Then, at the fourth book within “The Heroes of Olympus,” I suddenly find myself at a standstill. I can’t seem to get through Riordan’s novel, “The House of Hades,” and it finds a new home nestled high in my bookshelf, acquiring dust. Sure, I’ll keep it around, but more so for display purposes. I find myself gleaming with a sense of pride when a friend comes over and says, “Wow, you have the entire series!” Little do they know that I have slowly begun to transition into a poser — a person who keeps books around to preserve their identity as a reader, but who does next to no reading.
Let’s flash forward to the present. My room is littered with unique books, some of which I have never heard of and simply bought because I enjoyed the cover art or title. I love the feeling of flopping back in bed and staring at my walls to see that they are lined with books. Perhaps I find comfort in being surrounded by stories. The only thing is — I haven’t read a single one.
As it turns out, my experience is just one in a multitude of others, and all of us are partaking in “tsundoku,” a Japanese word for the acquisition of a wide array of books that you never end up reading. My tsundoku has followed me into young adulthood, and this is the year that I hope to put it to rest. Goodbye, unread books; hello, actually reading them.
You might be thinking — “So? You own a few too many books; why is this important?”
Well, it turns out that not only has tsundoku become a more widespread occurrence, with outlets such as BBC, The New York Times and even LitHub releasing articles about it, but it also coincides with an overall decrease in reading percentages by 7% throughout the U.S. population over the past decade.
I talked to a few friends recently about this — the fact that we used to read habitually (some might even call it manically) as children, but moving into young adulthood — nothing. Sure, I might own Dante’s “Inferno” and Thoreau’s “Walden” and “Civil Disobedience,” but this sure as hell doesn’t mean that I’m actually reading them.
My tsundoku has become one of my largest personal grievances. Now, as I stare at my bookshelf, I feel not comfort by being surrounded by literature, but a sense of stress due to wasted time — why haven’t I been reading?
Perhaps, I can remind you that while there is comfort in surrounding yourself in novels, there might be something more substantial and profound in immersing yourself in one.
Increased technology usage over the past two decades certainly has a primal part to play, as having a black hole of information in our easily accessible phones makes it difficult to gain knowledge elsewhere, “elsewhere” including books. With such a high saturation of digital content at my fingertips, I often feel that resorting to my phone for entertainment is the easy cop-out to reading. Furthermore, since grade school, the degree of literature we consume has certainly increased dramatically. The bridge from “The Magic Treehouse” to “Jane Eyre” is a shorter one than we give it credit for, and in all honesty, reading classic, academic literature takes a substantial amount of effort.
Perhaps, it isn’t that reading has lost the enchanting luster that it had in grade school, where I would often find myself lost in a different fictionalized world. It could be, in a simplistically sad fact, that reading has started to feel like a personal chore.
So this leaves the ex-reader with the question: How do I start reading again?
And to that, the only thing that I can do is remind you of your childhood: The days spent curled up on your bed or the couch in the living room, turning page after page and not even realizing you’re doing it because you have become lost in the world of literature. Perhaps, I can remind you that while there is comfort in surrounding yourself in novels, there might be something more substantial and profound in immersing yourself in one.
While it might take a bit of conditioning to get yourself reading the dense classics such as “War and Peace,” there are countless (and I truly mean countless!) lighthearted novels that you can dive into. Two classic authors, Haruki Murakami and Kurt Vonnegut, have become favorites of mine, as their array of novels are easier to take in, yet simultaneously heavy hitting. And hey, who ever said that you need to read all 1,225 pages of Tolstoy’s novel when you have Riordan’s “Percy Jackson” series lined up on your childhood bookshelf?
Regardless of what you plan on reading, I urge you — just read. Read before bed, read right when you wake up, read while you eat dinner. And with this reading, I hope you rediscover a sliver of your childhood with each turn of the page.
Lola Watts wants the ex-reader to turn off their cell, dust off their bookshelf and pick up a book if they haven’t done so in a while and, with this, rediscover the love of reading.