Building an antilibrary: the power of unread books - Deepstash
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Tsundoku (積ん読) is a beautiful Japanese word describing the habit of acquiring books but letting them pile up without reading them. I used to feel guilty about this tendency, and would strive to only buy new books once I had finished the ones I owned. However, the concept of the antilibrary has completely changed my mindset when it comes to unread books. Unread books can be as powerful as the ones we have read, if we choose to consider them in the right light.


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What is an antilibrary?

What is an antilibrary? To put it simply, an antilibrary is a private collection of unread books.


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“Thoroughly conscious ignorance is the prelude to every real advance in science.”



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Antilibrary as an antidote to Dunning-Kruger effect

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. Whether in a private or a public library, being surrounded by books we haven’t read yet—in the case of Umberto Eco, too many books to read in a lifetime—is a humbling experience.


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Why create an antilibrary?

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.


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Make notes of all relevant references

When an author mentions another book, check the exact reference and make a note of it. By doing so, you will have a list of all the relevant sources for a book when you are done reading it. Then, research this constellation of books. It is unlikely all the sources on the list will seem interesting to you. Sometimes, only a short passage of the source was relevant to the book you just read. But other times, you will discover a book that genuinely piques your curiosity.


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Ask fellow readers for recommendations.

If you read a book that you particularly enjoyed and would like to learn more about the topic, simply ask people if they know of any similar books. 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.


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Allow for serendipity.

I have read quite a few interesting books that I randomly bought in a bookstore because the cover looked nice and the title was intriguing. While looking for sources and similar books are both effective ways to build an antilibrary, make sure you leave space for chance discoveries.


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Do not expect the proportion of unread books to decrease.

While there is no perfect proportion, the more you read, the more you will expand your perimeter of knowledge, and the more unread books will be added to your antilibrary. It is not a bad thing, it means you are progressively turning unknown unknowns into known unknowns.


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Improve your relationship with knowledge.

At first, building an antilibrary can feel strange and even a bit anxiety-inducing. So many books—am I ever going to be able to read them all? Isn’t that a waste of money? Remember that knowledge is a process, not a possession. In addition, building an antilibrary is an investment in yourself which should stay within your means. Even if you only have 3-5 books you haven’t read on your shelf, this is already a great step in expanding your intellectual horizon.


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Ness Labs provides content, coaching, courses and community to help makers put their minds at work. Apply evidence-based strategies to your daily life, discover the latest in neuroscience research, and connect with fellow curious minds.


Whatever its size—from a couple of books to thousands of them—an antilibrary creates a humble relationship with knowledge. It reminds us that our knowledge is finite and imperfect. Far from being negative, this awareness can drive our curiosity and encourage us to question our assumptions. In a world where nuanced thinking is needed more than ever, an antilibrary is a much needed tool for thought.


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