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What Your Stacks of Unread Books Say About You

Tsundoku and the joy of reading.

Source: Pexels/Pixabay

Do you have a stack of unread books? The number and type of books may reveal some interesting personal insights into your level of intelligence, ambition, self-control, time management, and general outlook in life. There are many possible reasons why you have a stack of unread books. It is not uncommon. The Japanese have a specific term for a pile of purchased, but unread reading materials: tsundoku.

Reading, intelligence and neuroscience

There are many good reasons to read, starting as children and on into adulthood. A 2014 study published in Child Development suggests that stronger early reading skills may predict higher intelligence later – both verbal and nonverbal intelligence. Neuroscientists at Stanford published in PNAS a 2012 research study that suggests that the brain’s white matter tissue properties are highly correlated with reading proficiency in children. Individual differences in reading skill correlate positively with the fractional anisotropy (FA) development rate in the left arcuate and the inferior longitudinal fasciculus (ILF) areas of the brain, according to the scientists.

The ambitious overachiever

If you are a voracious reader of books, you are in great company. Intelligent, highly successful adults tend to be avid readers. According to a January 2018 survey by Pew Research Center, 67 percent of adults in the U.S. have read a print book in the past year, and read an average of 12 books per annum. Many CEOs, world leaders, successful entrepreneurs, industry luminaries, and notable authors read far in excess of the average.

For example, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates reads over four times as many books than the average American adult—around 50 books each year, according to a New York Times 2016 interview.

Entrepreneur, angel investor, Wall Street Journal best-selling author, podcaster, and comedian James Altucher reads 10 hours per week on average since he was five years old.

Sir Winston Churchill, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and winner of 1953 Nobel Prize in Literature, would read the latest published books across many genres throughout his lifetime, including science-fiction, classic literature, history and non-fiction books.

Elon Musk learned about rockets reading books. He had read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica at age nine and read science fiction for more than ten hours a day as a child according to CNBC.

Billionaire Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, estimates that he spends a majority of this day reading and thinking. According to an interview with Farnam Street, Buffett reads an estimated five to six hours daily.

New York Times best-selling author, entrepreneur, and philanthropist, Tony Robbins reads a minimum of 30 minutes daily.

The optimist

Are you an optimist? Perhaps you add to your stack of unread books with the best of intentions and positive belief that someday you will read it. When you look at your stack of unread books, you see future opportunity and benefits versus a failure of self-control at the time of purchase, or faulty personal time-management skills.

The book collector vs. hoarder

Are you a curator of a home library? A recently published 2018 study by researchers from the Australian National University and the University of Nevada found that adolescent exposure to books, as measured by the size of home libraries, “confers enduring cognitive skills in literacy, numeracy, and technology,” and “the perception that social practice of print book consumption is passé is premature.”

Do you like to have more books than you could possibly read in a year, or a lifetime? Do you acquire books for the joy of ownership? Bibliophiles are people who collect or have a love of books. Bibliomania is an excessive fondness for collecting books; however, it is not a psychological disorder according to the American Psychiatric Association. As long as your book collecting doesn’t become compulsive hoarding and harm your health or social relations, enjoy collecting away.

How to reduce the stack

Regardless of your personality type or reasons for buying books, there are practical ways to reduce your tsundoku. In the post-digital age, reading books is a challenge, as there are many electronic devices and applications competing for your attention. Digital distraction makes long reads, such as printed books, more difficult. Focus is key. If you are the type to read many books in parallel, focus your reading efforts on one book at a time instead. Prioritize your book stack in rank order and set a minimum number of minutes to read each day.

The amount of time is up to you, just make sure that it is a commitment that you can reasonably achieve every day. Start with 10 minutes each day and use a timer. You can allow yourself to read more than the daily minimum of minutes, just don’t go under. Then write your goals down on paper.

At the same time, slow down the rate of acquisition. Be more selective when purchasing. Don’t buy a new book until you read one of similar size.

Finally, if your stack of reading materials contain books that you know you will never get around to reading, release yourself from the possession entirely. If you aren’t a collector of books, consider donating or selling books that you haven’t read within a year, have already read, or have no intentions of reading within the year. Hopefully, the book that you pass along actually gets read by someone else, and doesn’t end up in another tsundoku.

Copyright © 2018 Cami Rosso All rights reserved.


Gerken, Tom. “Tsundoku: The art of buying books and never reading them.” BBC News. 29 July 2018.

Ritchie, SJ, Bates, TC and Plomin, R. “Does Learning to Read Improve Intelligence? A Longitudinal Multivariate Analysis in Identical Twins From Age 7 to 16.” Child Development. 2014.

Yeatman, Jason D., Dougherty, Robert F., Ben-Shachar, Michal. Wandell, Brian A. “Plasticity and reading development.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Oct 2012, 109 (44) E3045-E3053; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1206792109.

Perrin, Andrew. “Nearly on-in-five Americans now listen to audiobooks.” Pew Research Center. March 8, 2018.

Rosman, Katherine. “Bill Gates on Books and Blogging.” The New York Times. Jan. 4, 2016.

Ward, Marguerite. “Billionaire Elon Musk Credits his success to these 8 books.” CNBC. 21 Feb 2017.

International Churchill Society. “Man of Words.” Retrieved 12-17-2018 from

James Altucher. “The Purpose of Reading.” Retrieved 12/17/2018 from

Farnam Street. “How Warren Buffett Keeps up with a Torrent of Information.” Retrieved 12/10/2018 from

Robbins, Tony. Facebook. March 25, 2015. Retrieved 12/10/2018 from…

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