I was first introduced to the anti-library through Nassim Taleb’s work, the Black Swan. In fact, he was introduced to the concept through writer Umberto Eco in the following passage:
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’s an anti-library to me?
An anti-library is what I like to think of as a way to track your progress. In particular, I like the quote that read books are far less valuable than unread ones. When you read a book, you may or may not have absorbed that knowledge. Unread books represent how far you still have to go, like the menacing heavy weights at the gym.
For many of you, you likely have a number of unread books in your home that you feel like has been staring or weighing you down. “Oh I’ll get to those books one day” you tell yourself, but you never seem to have the time, energy or motivation to finish reading those books. The antilibrary is a different way of thinking about those unread books. For me, I see those unread books as “I’m not ready for those books yet in my life, but one day, I will.” Have you heard that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear? Well, when you are ready for the knowledge of that book, your motivation to read and analyze that book will spring upon you.
Interested in a deeper dive into what an antilibrary is? Check out Maria Popova’s article on the antilibrary and Shane Parrish’s (founder of the farnham street blog) thoughts on an antilibrary.
How do you build an antilibrary?
Building an antilibrary is really no different than building a library. If you love books, as I do, I’m sure you will have many opportunities to seek out books from different sources. Here are some of the ways that I find and discover books to read:
- Any books that are referred to in the books that I am reading, I will take a note of
- Browsing used book stores
- Browsing the library’s non-fiction online catalog
- Looking at the books that I really enjoyed, and searching to see if the author wrote other books
My favourite way of finding and acquiring used books is going to used book stores. In fact, I make it a rule of mine that whenever I travel to a new city, I make and schedule the time to visit a used book store. And whenever I am not traveling, I’ll purchase used books either from online used book stores or finding used books on Amazon (though in my experience, purchasing directly from the source can be much cheaper).
What’s in my antilibrary?
I’m proud to say that I have many books in my library that I have not read. In fact, I have found that as I read more and accumulate more knowledge, my unread books start to pile up even further (as the quote mentioned). One reason for this is that when I find authors that I like, I tend to purchase more or all of the books in their collection, as long as the subject appeals to me and many authors tend to write multiple books on similar subjects. As I purchase books, I always think about what I am interested in, either now or in the future, and even though I might not be ready to read the book now, I’ll now that I will always have access to the knowledge in the future, should I need it.
- I have numerous books from Edward de Bono, the father of lateral thinking that are unread. I was a huge fan of lateral thinking puzzles when I was younger, and when I saw a bevy of his books at a used book sale, I recognized his name immediately and purchased the whole lot of books.
- Creativity rules by Tina Seelig who wrote another great book What I wish I knew when I was 20.
- Many books by Michael Michalko including Thinkertoys, Creative Thinkering and Cracking Creativity.
- On writing by Stephen King
- Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
- On writing well by William Zinsser
- Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark
Selling and copywriting
- Numerous books by Elmer G. Leterman including Personal Power through Creative Selling, Sales and Sales Management, and The Sale Begins when the Customer Says No.
- Tested sentences that sell by Elmer Wheeler
- The Robert Collier Letter Book by Robert Collier
- Scientific Advertising by Claude C. Hopkins
- How to sell anything to anybody by Joe Girard
Many, many books from P.G. Wodehouse!
- Many The Hardy Boys books
- Many Choose your own adventure books
- Many John Dickson Carr mystery books
So taking a look at my antilibrary above, I think you can tell what topics and skills I am interested in developing: creativity, selling and writing are the big ones. But even seeing the small size of my antilibrary, I know that I have a long way to go to building my knowledge.