“Tsundoku,” the Japanese Word for the New Books That Pile Up on Our Shelves, Should Enter the English Language


There are some words out there that are brilliantly evocative and at the same time impossible to fully translate. Yiddish has the word shlimazl, which basically means a perpetually unlucky person. German has the word Backpfeifengesicht, which roughly means a face that is badly in need of a fist. And then there’s the Japanese word tsundoku, which perfectly describes the state of my apartment. It means buying books and letting them pile up unread.

The word dates back to the very beginning of modern Japan, the Meiji era (1868-1912) and has its origins in a pun. Tsundoku, which literally means reading pile, is written in Japanese as 積ん読. Tsunde oku means to let something pile up and is written 積んでおく. Some wag around the turn of the century swapped out that oku (おく) in tsunde oku for doku (読) – meaning to read. Then since tsunde doku is hard to say, the word got mushed together to form tsundoku.

As with other Japanese words like karaoke, tsunami, and otaku, I think it’s high time that tsundoku enter the English language. Now if only we can figure out a word to describe unread ebooks that languish on your Kindle. E-tsundoku? Tsunkindle? Visit our collection of Free eBooks and contemplate the matter for a while.

The illustration above was made when Redditor Wemedge asked his daughter to illustrate the word “Tsundoku,” and she did not disappoint.

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his art blog Veeptopus.

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Comments (33)
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  • Gabriel says:

    電車積ん読 for ebooks might work

  • Kenny Cross says:

    Love this word. Love Japanese words. I shall start using this immediately.

  • Michia says:

    Correction on Backpfeifengesicht – not asking for fist, asking for a slap. Very different. A slap can be delivered with some vigor and, if given with a cupped hand over the ear, can even bust an eardrum. Favored method of instant child correction back in the day.

  • Cyber Killer says:

    Do they have a word for such computer games? My steam library got quite huge after all these sales and bundles, I got no time to play all this ;-P.

  • Sat says:

    For computer games, there is another word, 積みゲー(Tsumi Game)!

  • pasques says:

    tsundokindle seems pretty obvious?

  • doppelganglander says:

    Unwatched shows on your video streaming device = tsunderoku?

  • Mark McGovern says:

    Do the Japanese have a word for the feeling that they have been on so many heaps and hordes of different women through their john activities that they are almost repelled by their own selves?

    I dont’ mean a feeling of sin or guilt but just a feeling that it is all too much, the endless messing around with pointless activities in this regard.

    Another good Japanese invention would be a word for that perception of the heaps and heaps of credit card receipts, symbolizing meals and hotel rooms and entertainment and impulse buys for a lifetime, which hads up to a mountain of stuff for which one is still in debt? I always laugh at one fellow I know, under such a mountain, who says his first meal out paid with a credit card, back in his youth, was a cheap Chinese lunch, yet it pings in his memory as the beginning of the end of his financial happiness.

  • Patricia Anne Elford says:

    I’ve already misused this word because I understood it to mean having piles of books everywhere, as we do, but most of them ARE being read or HAVE BEEN been read and WILL BE READ again, d.v. Is there a variation on the word which suits our situation, please?

  • Annie says:

    Ditto-I have long ago run out of bookshelves, but they’re read/being read/will soon be read…though I do like to have a book or two unread. It’s lovely to rediscover a forgotten book.

    How do books multiply themselves-whenever I put up new bookcases, the books already on shelves fill the new shelves and I have no more space than I had before. It’s ridiculous & I can never understand how this happens.

  • Annie says:

    Some people still think that violence is all right when it’s done to a child. A burst eardrum will heal itself and any loss of hearing is temporary, but it’s still a terrible thing to do. I can’t see why so many people consider that a level of violence that would be assault if done to an adult is ‘discipline’ or ‘good discipline’ for children.

    I must say that some adults do seem to be asking for a good smack (not on the ear) with their smug, know-it-all faces.

  • XAos says:

    Books I invariably read within a few days. Except for reference books like the Encyclopaedia Britannica, where I read a few paragraphs, now & then…

    New DVD’s however, those just stack up.

  • Robert Lovejoy says:

    My proposed word for a list of e-books waiting to be read is “equeue”.

  • Yuki says:

    In English, it’s called “bibliophile”. I’m going to borrow Wikipedia here:

    “Accordingly, a bibliophile is an individual who loves books. A bookworm (sometimes pejorative) is someone who loves books for their content, or who otherwise loves reading. The adjective form of the term is bibliophilic. A bibliophile may be, but is not necessarily, a book collector.”

    I’m a bibliophile.
    1. I buy books because I want to read them.
    2. I buy books because I love books.
    3. I buy books because I want to collect books.

    But it doesn’t mean I’ve read everything I bought. In fact, I have more books I haven’t read than books that I’ve read.

  • efschumacher says:

    Unread e-books would be ‘TsunDen’ = unread electrons. Sorry I don’t have a Kanji maker handy, but it’s the same ‘den’ as in DenDenTown down there in NipponBashi.

  • Brandelune says:

    The etymology is probably a bit different:

    As you wrote tsunde-oku means pile up and it often shortened as tsundoku in the spoken language because it is easier/faster to say. This shortening also happens with other verbs that share the same structure. And since the new *doku* ending happens to also be one of the readings of the character used for “reading” (読, as in 読書), the “wag around the turn of the century” actually created the pun.

  • Doncot says:

    Actually, “tsundoku” differs conceptually from “bibliophile”.
    Bibliophile refers to a “[person] who loves book”, while tsundoku refers to a “[situation/condition or habit] of one acquiring books but not reading them”.
    What is distinct about “tsundoku” is that when used, it implies the “mottainai (wasteful) feeling” (another known Japanese concept) that one should read the books rather than just collecting them.

  • Kuroi says:

    densha? You probably mean denshi.

    I’ll fix that for you: 電子積ん読

  • cromercrox says:

    I’d like to propose a derivative word, ‘tsundoqueue’, meaning the list of books recommended to you by friends, which you (and they) know you’ll probably never get round to reading. As in “thanks for telling me about that book, it sounds interesting – I’ll add it to my tsundoqueue.”

  • Sonomama says:

    You are right. There are other verbs that have this type of shortening when it’s followed by ‘oku’. For example, ‘ho-otte-oku'(to leave it as it is)=’hottoku’.

  • Kshema says:

    This post reminded me of a series of illustrations called “Untranslatable Words.” Beautiful illustrations to show words of different languages that are used to describe certain feelings.

    Follow this link to see them:


  • Kevin says:

    Love the illustration….

  • curmudgeon says:

    Surely Redditor Wemedge is a pen-name! As a real name it’s just too good to be true.

  • OppedOut says:

    Wondering if the tsun in tsundoku is of the same root as tsunami? It certainly feels that way in my place!

  • Talya says:

    I’m working on solving this issue. I am using Journal 7 to create a note on every new book I have, including ebooks. I list the name, author, when/where I bought it. Then when I finished it and what I thought of it – key points about the book. It’s helping me “see” all the books I still want to read.

  • Jasmin says:


    Even though thats a rather old post I gotta reply to it. In German, we call this staple “SUB” (short for Stapel ungelesener Bücher).

    It would work perfectly for English as well – staple (of) unread books :)

    Idk if that is even already used but yeah

    X Jasmin

  • Atila says:

    we are not japs

    read the books

  • atila says:

    if we want to speak Jew or jap we will.typical of them to force their way in and rape us (our language).

  • greg says:

    read the damned books

  • NancyP says:

    Is there a word for “books bought for a rainy/snowy day”? The book equivalent of the cans of soup in the back of the pantry, or of the bottle of special wine or liqueur saved for times when you need a treat?

  • TR says:

    Tsundle(積んどる) is still a pun bit accented.

  • Anna says:

    How about unread and unwanted email? Saved but un-revisited websites?

  • Masa says:

    An unwanted e-mail is translated into 迷惑メール (meiwaku mail, which is an annoying e-mail, a junk e-mail, a spam e-mail, and/or an unsolicited e-mail). 迷惑メール doesn’t have the meaning of “unread”, and 未読メール (midoku mail) has the meaning. So, if you want to say both meaning i.e. an “unread” and “unwanted” email, we (i.e. Japanese people) can say 未読の迷惑メール (midoku no meiwaku mail).
    We never say e.g. “Tsun-webs” about bookmarking but un-revisited websites. :-p There is no Japanese word about it.

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