Tsundoku (Japanese: 積ん読) is acquiring books but letting them pile up in one’s home without reading them.
This is a common phenomenon today extending to movies, tv shows, podcasts, music albums, and going to events. It is due to an abundance of access and a deficiency of motivation. We certainly have the free time, we have the material, we have Amazon Prime. But for some reason we waste it doing the things we don’t really want. And it’s not like reading is particularly hard. It’s actually very fun! So what’s the problem?
The problem is not access, and the problem is not free time, and I would even take back what I say that the problem is not a lack of motivation. As a society we are plenty motivated and productive. But rather we are much too motivated in a misplaced belief.
The misplaced belief is in the blind acceptance of belief itself. We tend to believe in a weird fate of all things: that they will get done. Somehow, someone, somewhere — some robot will do it. And this leaves us with the easy responsibility to simply imagine between now and the moment when the thing is done. All we have to do to get it done is to believe it get done.
Oddly, we usually don’t first work on something and then come to believe in it. It’s the other way around. We usually have to believe in something in order to work on it. Maybe it is rooted in American culture from the Protestant notion of Predestination, or maybe it’s something much older — either way, it’s here: belief comes before doing and belief is stronger than anything in the material world.
When belief comes before doing, tsundoku occurs. I believe that if I keep taking photos then a photobook will emerge. I believe if I tweet about the environment, then it will eventually get fixed. I believe that if I torrent, catalog, and meticulously sort every episode of Game of Thrones, I will have in essence, seen the show.
Slavoj Žižek calls this “interpassivity”, defined by him as “the uncanny double” of interactivity. Oddly, in a world where the viewer has evolved from a passive TV viewer to an active participant in media, an equally large force of interpassivity has pushed back. Interpassivity is people living vicariously through celebrities. Or, in the case of the author, he lives vicariously through his VCR. He documents…
“Almost every VCR aficionado who compulsively records movies (myself among them) is well aware of the immediate effect of owning a VCR is that one effectively watches fewer films than in the good old days of TV… Although I do not actually watch the films, the very awareness that the films I love are stored in my video library gives me a profound satisfaction… as if the VCR is in a way watching them for me, in my place.” (How to Read Lacan, Žižek)
The outsourcing of satisfaction to an inanimate object is at the core of tsundoku and interpassivity. It is the use of a proxy set in place between now and when something gets done. In other words, the proxy takes the place of our imagination where the thing gets done. We imagine the VCR watching the shows itself. We imagine the books reading themselves. And interpassivity allows us to take pleasure in that.
Tsundoku is a problem. It embodies interpassivity. It not only prevents us from reading what we want, but also enables us to overconsume and overbuy a glut of stuff we will never properly use. Waste is a quietly wicked act. But the solution is easy:
The trick to overcoming tsundoku is to do before you believe. When you do, there is not opportunity for a proxy, there is only you. When there is a you, and only you, then can you interact and be interactive.
Interactivity, the uncanny opposite of interpassivity, emerges a hero. “Waste not!”, it bellows.