The Japanese have a word for the act of acquiring books and letting them pile up unread.
Tsundoku—a play on the words tsunde (“to stack things”), oku (“to leave for a while”) and doku (“to read”)—is recognizable to book hoarders worldwide. You see a title and you just have to have it, even though you already have more unread books on your bedside table than you could possibly read in a year … but you’re going to get to it eventually, right? Tsundoku is such a relatable but untranslatable concept that it regularly re-enters our Western consciousness through online articles. In fact, Googling the word might lead you straight into another problem. I call it “Tab-sundoku,” or the even more recognizable act of opening tabs and letting them pile up unread.
If this article isn’t your 15th-plus tab, bravo. But there’s a reason Slate’s tech podcast If Then calls its weekly recommendations “Don’t Close My Tabs”: An overabundance of tabs is a well-established problem among those who spend their entire days combing the internet, where distraction reigns king. You just have to open that article, even though you’re in the middle of something … but you’re going to get to it eventually, right? It’s book piling on a smaller, more intense scale—there’s so much more fascinating online content than you could ever possibly consume, but it’s all so bite-size and clickable (or not so bite-sized—that Very Important but Very Long New York Times interactive essay you’re going to get to eventually is the virtual equivalent of taking on War and Peace). Some suggest academics are especially prone to tsundoku—I would suggest digital journalists might be more prone to tab-sundoku. Excessive tabs show, more than anything, a deep curiosity, a thirst for knowledge.
Tab-sundoku is like the RAM-destroying love child of inbox overflow and tsundoku, and as someone guilty of both—5,000 emails and 100 or so books—my tab-sundoku is especially acute. My browser is the virtual equivalent of a room stacked ceiling-high with precarious piles, arranged in a system only I understand. In the process of writing this piece, I added a dozen tabs to my already substantial collection of ongoing “for later” tabs (in the main window, that is). Whenever I sit down to have a tab-reading or -clearing moment, I inevitably open five more. And just as I struggle to walk out of movies I don’t like, I struggle to close articles I haven’t finished.
But the internet is full of sanctimonious articles that I’m more than willing to close without finishing, moralizing against the dangers of excessive tabs and proffering solutions. File to: Productivity. Lifehacker says you should never have more than nine tabs. Task-management applications like Trello and Zapier are particularly concerned about your lifestyle: Your tabs are sucking up your memory and making your computer more scatterbrained, they argue. There are as many plug-ins out there as I have tabs open to help with the shameful little problem: “OneTab,” “Toby,” “Flipboard,” “Tabs limiter with queue,” “Tab Snooze,” “The Great Suspender,” “Pocket,” and “BarTab Lite.” Some focus on grouping, organizing, and collating your tabs, while others stop you from opening more. The assumption is that you’ll keep your tab compulsion under more control with a filing system or perhaps that you’ll simply get over those articles you can no longer see winking at you behind the page you’re meant to be on.
But these browser extensions only compartmentalize the problem. Trusting your tabs to a bookmarking app is a bit like trusting your books to the Room of Requirement: Once you hide them from yourself, surely there’s less chance of you ever actually reading them (though some may argue that this is the point). Not to mention the fact that you can now throw any old junk in there—hiding your “to read” list will only embolden you to add to it. At least a cluttered bar makes you think before relegating an article to tab status, weigh up its relative importance, read something first: A nice clean naked bar is just begging to be filled. Sometimes, tabs are the only things stopping me from adding more tabs.
Encouraging excess aside, is “OneTab” with 25 articles saved any healthier than 25 open tabs? If you—like me—are someone who truly intends to get to those articles, probably not. Sure, it’s slightly better for the computer’s memory, but in my memory they’re still there, waiting, the weight of the new location hanging over me even if they’re not hanging over my screen. (I’ll never forget you, bookmark folder “TO READ 06/03/18.”) Meanwhile, physically stopping me from opening a new tab is unlikely to stop me from finding a way to compulsively save something for later, whether that’s by emailing it to myself or writing it down on my hand.
Of course, some recommend good old-fashioned “tab discipline,” the virtual equivalent of going cold turkey—if, that is, you are capable of applying self-control to your control-plus-t problem. Others suggest declaring “browser bankruptcy,” or closing and purging everything, then resisting the urge to open things that don’t matter. But honestly, every time I attempt to read about different management systems to deal with my problem, things only get worse as I open tab upon tab of solutions.
All this smug advice over tabs is not unlike the Cult of Inbox Zero, which declares that keeping your inbox at zero emails is the only way to live. (Call it the “Cult of Tab One,” if you will.) These worshippers of minimalism treat an overflowing inbox as something shameful, even suggesting their own drastic bankruptcy measures. But as Farhad Manjoo once argued in these pages, we should just accept our cluttered inboxes—forget the guilt and live our lives.
In 2015, the hosts of the podcast Reply All, Alex Goldman and P.J. Vogt, came up with Email Debt Forgiveness Day, a day in which people can reply to emails without shame no matter how long they’ve been sitting on them. Perhaps it’s time for some tab amnesty, too. There’s no shame in a healthy interest in good content. Of course, the overfull browser doesn’t come with the same guilt as the overfull inbox—unless, of course, you feel crippling emotional guilt over all the things you haven’t read or watched or listened to yet (but let’s be real, you probably do). No one is waiting on you to close your tabs. It’s not others we need to forgive for tab transgressions. It’s time to forgive ourselves.