There's a Word for Buying More Books Than You'll Ever Read | Just Reflections - Issue #22
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Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get to the reason you’re here.
I enjoy learning about languages that can describe very specific things in one word. From very specific emotions to awkward situations, languages like German and Japanese can describe certain scenarios we’ve all experienced perfectly, while the English vocabulary falls short.
My personal favourite is “Schadenfreude” means the joy you feel at another person’s pain (“schaden” means “damage” and “freude” means “joy”). This term might be used, for example, when someone cuts you off in traffic while driving, but you still end up passing them. Another that many can probably relate to is “Kummerspeck,” which refers to weight gained because of excessive eating that stems from being sad. And one from my language; “Ubuntu” which loosely refers to the act of being kind to others because of our common humanity. Ubuntu is frequently translated as “I am because we are”. Here’s a page that lists many of them from different languages. This week I discovered a new one.
Tsundoku (積ん読) is a Japanese word describing the habit of acquiring books but letting them pile up without reading them. Lebanese-American scholar and author Nassim Taleb in the book “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable” termed this collection of unread books the “antilibrary”. To introduce it, he talks about the Italian philosopher Umberto Eco, who had a massive personal library and a unique relationship with his books. This is how he describes it;
The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?”* and the others—a very small minority—who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.
What stands out the most for me is that “… a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool.” and “Read books are far less valuable than unread ones.”
When done right, the antilibrary can express our dedication to curiosity. It can be an acknowledgement that unread books are just as powerful as the ones we’ve read if we choose to consider them in the right light.
My kindle, audible account and personal bookshelf all have more books I haven’t read than those I’ve read and I still buy more regularly. If I’m convinced that a book is good, I’ll get a copy. If someone I know writes a book, I’ll get a copy. To me, a book is always a good purchase, so I rarely think twice about it. I understand it will be years until I read some of these books. Some I will start and not finish and some I might never get to. I’m okay with that. I’ve never seen this as a problem at all, but I’ve felt a little guilty about it. Learning about this concept of the antilibrary has been quite liberating (that’s why I’m getting a copy of The Black Swan 😁).
An ode to curiosity
There’s incredible value in learning to follow our curiosity. It can often lead us to lessons that would be difficult to get to through external motivations. It can help us form connections between many seemingly disparate disciplines. This is not just possible, but it comes easily to the curious because curiosity is purely about pursuing knowledge. It’s just us running wild and finding anything we can about a subject. Even things that are only remotely connected. By buying many books in whatever subjects you’re curious about, you build a quickly accessible reference that allows you to domain hop and unlock many non-obvious insights.
“The goal of an antilibrary is not to collect books you have read so you can proudly display them on your shelf; instead, it is to curate a highly personal collection of resources around themes you are curious about. Instead of a celebration of everything you know, an antilibrary is an ode to everything you want to explore. … By expanding our awareness of unknown unknowns, an antilibrary may even be an antidote to the Dunning–Kruger effect, where we tend to overestimate the extent of our knowledge.” — Anne-Laure Le Cunff.
Supply vs Demand
At any point, we have a limited supply of time and an unlimited list of things to do, all demanding our time and attention. Many believe that to get more done, we have to cut down on things that are demanding our time. Thus balancing supply and demand and allowing us to focus on just those things that are most important.
However, if you think about it, we might benefit from a different approach. Reducing the demand for our time can reduce urgency. But when we constantly see how much we have left to do, or in this case, how many books in our antilibrary are still waiting for a spot on our schedule, that adds a sense of urgency. A sense that there is still much more about the world that we are yet to learn about, so we better get on it. As a result, we might procrastinate less and read more books.
The more you read, the longer your reading list grows because your curiosity is continuously sparked. You’ll get many book references from characters in the stories you read, you’ll become curious about the interests of the author. You’ll wonder about books similar to the one you just enjoyed and you’ll get book recommendations from other book lovers you talk to. Reading more will continuously increase your to-read list and this is a good thing. It means you are progressively turning unknown unknowns into known unknowns.
Whether in a private or a public library, being surrounded by many books we haven’t read yet is not just a humbling experience. It is also a call to action. A reminder that our time is limited.
Building your antilibrary
If this sparked your interest and you want to build your antilibrary but don’t know where to start. Anne-Laure Le Cunff has a really well-written article on the idea of the antilibrary — it was actually my first contact with this idea — which includes tips on how to do that. Here’s a summary of some of them:
Make notes of all relevant references. When an author mentions another book, check the exact reference and make a note of it. Sometimes, only a brief passage of the source applied to the book you just read. But other times, you will discover a book that genuinely piques your curiosity. Add this book to your antilibrary.
Ask fellow readers for recommendations. If you don’t have many readers in your circles, you can use Goodreads or Amazon to find similar books. Read the reviews to decide whether they would be a good addition to your antilibrary.
Allow for serendipity. While looking for sources and similar books are both effective ways to build an antilibrary, make sure you leave space for chance discoveries.
You don’t have to finish the books you own first before you buy new ones. Allow your curiosity to guide you to build a library of things you don’t know. To form your personal reference library. And let Nassim Taleb’s words ring true for you:
“… a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones.” — Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan: The impact of the highly improbable,
What do you think of this idea? Please hit reply and let me know.
That’s all I have for you this week. If you like the newsletter, consider sharing it with others on Twitter, WhatsApp or Facebook. Hit the thumbs up or thumbs down below to let me know what you think about the issue.
I hope I’ve given you something to think about this week and I wish you ever-increasing curiosity.
Until next week.
Impactful ideas that challenged my thinking.
I have a lot of interests so I'm always learning all kinds of things, some of which really challenge my thinking. In the Just Reflections newsletter, I'll be sharing with you a summary of the ideas that challenged my thinking recently and hopefully they will challenge yours too and we grow together.
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