Tsundoku. Those books you never get round to reading.


This week I came across a wonderful word: ‘Tsundoku’, a Japanese word meaning “the constant act of buying books but never reading them”.

It came at a particularly pertinent time for me as I am starting to prepare to write my next paper. One of the major steps in this process is writing the introduction to the paper – a summary of all the relevant literature in the field. While I have some of these background documents organised from my when I wrote the literature review for my research proposal, I’m also required to cover the latest research. I dutifully skim and file these papers as they arrive in my inbox from journal database alert systems. But I hadn’t actually looked in my files lately.

To my horror I found that I had collected 450 journal articles relevant to my research on the last eighteen months. 450! At around 8,000 words each it could take me the rest of my PhD period (about eight months) to read them all.

And that’s just in my journal articles folder.

I had also collected a mass of books from second hand book sales, the internet and the library.

I had shifted those articles I thought would be interesting on to my e-reader to read on the bus. And when that didn’t result in me reading them I sent them to my personal email account to guilt myself into reading them on my phone instead.

Then there are all the news and technological development articles I wanted to read. Approximately 100 weeks worth of Energy Collective news bulletins from the US. Renew Economy articles from Australia. The Australian Institute of Energy’s Energy News magazine for the past year.

And that’s just related to my work!  There was a similar stash for personal enjoyment. Half read book club books, issues of National Geographic going back three years, a stack of books on loan from people beside my bed, ten weeks of the Melville City Herald to keep me updated on the local gossip.

The situation, always a little precarious, is now genuinely out of control.

So I did what all good researchers do. I systematically reviewed what I needed, catalogued and cleaned. I cleaned my reading material like I cleaned my data. Removed all duplication. Kept all that weren’t necessary, but moved them into a clearly marked separate location.

For my own sanity I also decided to make a clear separation between work and play. Work books stay at work. Journal articles stay on my work computer. My e-reader was purged of anything PhD related. So too was my personal email.

The whole process took about three days but I’m left with a more workable system, and a reduced level of guilt. I don’t feel like I have to read work articles on the bus anymore!  (Which leaves me time to write these blog posts).

I’ve also had to come to terms with the fact that I cannot, possibly, know everything that’s out there. PhD students are often told that they will have to come to terms with the fact that they are now the world leader in the tiny little sub portion of a field. I have had to come to terms with the fact that in an area of research that is so topical and highly studied I simply cannot be the world leader. Instead I’ll chip away at my little case studies and reflect back on what I can from the literature, realising that whatever I’m saying might not be accurate under all scenarios. I’m working in an area with an astonishingly small half-life of facts, and that’s ok! 

Next up… Finding the time to break out the hammock and get updated on the local gossip.


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