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Tsundoku, Gatsby, Marshmallows, Me

Tsundoku is the art of buying books and leaving them unread, or the pile of unread books themselves.

I found this term in an article titled 23 Words Every Book Lover Should Know while spending fall 2021 in New York. Sparsity of affordable furniture inspired me to convert a windowsill to bookshelf, and in my eagerness to explore a new city (home to Strand, McNally Jackson, Unoppressive Non-imperialist Bargain Books, stalls littering sidewalks), I accumulated a row of tsundokus before September began.

Now, I am reminded of Gatsby’s library in his West Egg mansion, where Owl Eyes, the bespectacled drunk, lifted and admired each book. An absolute triumph, he says, that every book is absolutely real — pages and everything! Of course, we know the pages remain uncut, each book unread. Gatsby too practices the fine art of tsundoku, and look where that got him: dead in a pool, abandoned by the mad love of his life. Tragic, iconic, romantic. Everything I’d expect the city to be.

So, a century after the Jazz Age, I spent hard-earned work-study money on to-reads, shelving them in rainbow order. A pigeon occasionally ventures up to my 11th floor window and leaves white droppings on the ledge. Gatsby collected silks, threw parties, drove creamy cars. I rinsed and reused plastic containers, ripped napkins in half to make them last, rewore clothes to save laundry money. I scrimped through my stipend from Duke by skipping meals, staying in bed on days without class to conserve energy, substituting sleep for calories. As the weather chilled, nights grew longer, and adrenaline from heightened independence wore off, it became even more difficult to wake, eat, even feel hunger. Already slightly underweight, I cut another 15 pounds in October. 

Also, I couldn’t help buying books. Walk past the ramen shop. A $4 copy of Salvage the Bones. Ignore Trader Joe’s shiny aisles. A $1.99 thrift of A Promised Land. Live another day off stale bagels. A $20 fresh print of Oliver’s Devotions. Here I was, four years of college expenses covered through Questbridge, yet unable to rid myself of a self-instilled instinct to hoard, save, and leave things to enjoy in the future.

I attended a private high school northeast of Cleveland on 90% aid. My family lives on the west side and buys groceries with EBT. I used to pack extra sandwiches during school lunch to eat on my hour-long bus ride home at 5:30pm. I’m sure that, as beings with the cognitive capacity to plan for the future, we all hoard a little: creating bucket lists, to-read lists, accumulating belongings, saving for tomorrow.

Have you heard of the marshmallow experiment? In this study, children who waited longer, rejecting immediate gratification for a greater reward (two marshmallows), grew up to have higher standardized test scores, better self control, greater life achievement. A revisiting of this study, however, discovered that “affluence — not willpower — seems to be what’s behind some kids’ capacity to delay gratification.” Socially disadvantaged children tend to eat their marshmallow sooner because they lack stability, can’t trust when the next meal may come.

I never consciously realized being low-income actually affected my life until college, when I joined Questbridge and DukeLIFE GroupMe’s. Peers shared resources for clothes, textbooks, food. Only after finding solidarity did I comprehend my previous lack — who else at my high school was stowing sandwiches into backpacks? I took what I had and didn’t have for granted. Yet my peers were demanding more for themselves, for people like me. Why wasn’t I? 

Occasionally I wonder if I’m experiencing some sort of “privileged poorstereotype threat. My family’s annual income nearly reaches the American poverty line sometimes, but with my finaid at Duke, I can feel rich like my classmates. This is old news, but I’m still mind blown by the fact that there are four times more students at Duke whose family income ranks in the US top 1% than there are students from families in the bottom 20%. It also seems like half this school visits NYC for spring or fall break, a weekend trip that could cost more than all I spent last semester. Yet I find their social media posts relatable, likable, a facade of attainable. Glittery, gorgeous, not at all tragic. Only iconic, romantic. I reach for another glossy cover on a shelf.

I wonder if I have problems prioritizing as I balance on scales, watch my weight drop, know it’s the cost of saving each HEERF fund, stimulus check, meal stipend, the cost of piling books on my windowsill instead.

I’m the low-income kid who just eats the marshmallow, can’t help delaying gratification, spends the little control I have. At the same time, I want to wait longer, avoid the stereotype, forget my hunger. In a sense, Tsundoku allows me to contain both choices — it’s taking the marshmallow, but waiting to eat it. It’s buying the book, but waiting to read it.

It’s taken me writing and rewriting this article, struggling to form coherent, non-contradictory thoughts, to understand this simple fact: tsundoku, this lovely lifestyle, is detrimental to my well-being. It’s not art, but an unhealthy compromise veiled in romance. I’ve reflected on stories, gathered lessons, listened to so many voices — from Gatsby, children with marshmallows and psychologists, my peers — trying to understand both NYC glamor and low-income life, compromising two contradicting experiences, neither truly mine, yet both fully mine as well.

Spring 2022 simply melted away, and life still feels off-balanced sometimes, but this summer, as I study away again, I know to avoid falling for fantasies, to reckon conflicting expectations. I know to prioritize my health, call home more often, cut the pages wide open. Let my mind and body be the mad love of my life.

Meanwhile, I may still long for a romanticized city, imagine tsundokus across a windowsill: a rainbow-ordered, triumphal march against cold glass. Some things I simply can’t bear to cut. Let me woo a dream across the shore. Let me believe I can eat my cake and have it. Let me save a little reading to look forward to.

Jocelyn Chin is a Trinity sophomore. Her column, Bibliobibuli, runs on alternate Wednesdays. Coined by H. L. Mencken, bibliobibuli means “to be drunk on books”: from the Greek biblio (books), and the Latin bibulous, from bibere (to drink).

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