Back in 2012 E and I gave about half of our many books away as part of a BBQ party. We kept what we hadn’t read yet but still found interesting, as well as reference books and books we had read and felt attached to. In the decade since I’ve bought a lot of new books, based on interests, recommendations, or because they were mentioned in books I did read, and of course based on arbitrary reasons like the title and design jumped out at me while browsing a bookstore. Even though E and I don’t regularly descend anymore on a bookstore like a swarm of locusts on a field, something we did frequently in the past, over the years the collection of unread books I have has grown significantly. Those stacks of unread books carry a certain weight on my mind, a nagging backlog of books to read. I stopped buying for a long while because I ‘should’ read the others first.

Taleb in his book The Black Swan comes up with the concept of the Anti-Library. I don’t remember that specifically from reading The Black Swan, but I came across it again in this posting at Ness Labs. I do remember reading Taleb’s anecdote about Umberto Eco’s enormous book collection though, which concludes with the concept of the Anti-Library.

An Anti-Library is your personal curated collection of books, papers etc. that you haven’t read. Taleb posits that what you haven’t read, but did have reason to collect and adopt into your library constitutes a research tool. Because it has more potential value (in terms of new insights etc) than what you’re already familiar with and have read.

This puts the focus on how I can actively use the stacks of unread books around the house and on my devices, while at the same time letting go of the feeling of guilt attached to it (“I really should read that book I bought soon….”). This switches the perspective from ‘I bought this book to read immediately’ to ‘I bought this book so it’s there when I might need it’. From ‘backlog’ to ‘shelves of opportunity’.

Thinking in terms of an anti-library also allows paying attention to how you deliberately enlarge the collection of unreads, which is a curation task. The unread books aren’t random choices, they are a selected set of personal resources concerning themes you find interesting or that make you curious.

I de facto already have an anti-library, as the result of procuring books faster than reading them. To make it fully visible as such to myself and use it as a research tool, I probably just need to add a few tweaks. Such as:

  • Maintaining an index of unread books. I created a collection ‘Anti-library’ in Zotero, which also contains other collections with the references to things I did read. Zotero works well with both books and (academic) papers. I already had in my notes a list called ‘my reading list’ which is an overview of books I think would be useful to read at this moment in time, which I moved to Zotero. And I could make an additional round through my e-ink devices, and our home to add to the list of unreads.
  • When adding a new unread book, jotting down why I thought to add it. This is helpful context in evaluating it later. I do the same for bookmarks I store for later reading/turning into notes, where I write down why I thought it relevant and to which other things I think it might be connected.
  • Keep doing what I already do, which is checking out recommendations from peers, and what other books the ones I enjoy currently reading are referencing
  • I now post here about books I read sometimes, maybe I should do the same for books I acquired but didn’t yet read, and share the reason I think it might be an interesting book. Have an anti-library stream
  • When exploring a new question, consider which unread books may contain relevant insights (next to exploring what my notes already contain on the question at hand)

Book Case
The other side of a book case, image by Ton Zijlstra, license CC BY NC SA

10 reactions on “Surfacing My Anti-Library

  1. @ton Thanks! That is a new way of looking at my unread books I needed. :)I am still reading very very slowly the Black Swan though. But I will put the unread part of the book (80% now) in my anti-library, and not feeling guilty.

  2. I’d read that Ness Labs article but thanks for the reminder. Even if I don’t go to the lengths you suggest of cataloguing my unread books I will benefit from this guilt reducing way of coping with the fact that my purchasing continues to outstrip my reading.

  3. @ton @bradenslen What a fantastic idea, and I love how you’ve applied it to both books and bookmarks. I’ve always been tagging my bookmarks and sometimes adding a description, but now I want to incorporate the why in the description.

    Thanks for sharing this!

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