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11.19.20 | Arts & Culture

An Argument for the Antilibrary

Whether you’re an avid reader or the one-novel-a-year type, being surrounded by more books than you can read is good for you and leads to a more vibrant life. The desire to stockpile a library far beyond the limits of your reading speed is in fact so universal that there’s a word for it: tsundoku

The Japanese term is defined as the “stockpiling of books that will never be consumed.” Breaking the word down into its separate components: tsunde means to stack things, oku means to leave for a while and doku means to read. Those that “suffer” from tsundoku can’t help but pick up a few extra titles at a garage sale, or to browse the bookstore if they happen to stroll past. Having a specific word for it celebrates these tendencies and points out that hoarding books is not only fun, but good for the soul.

In fact, author and statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb takes the idea of tsundoku one step further. He advocates for building your own antilibrary, a term coined in his bestselling book The Black Swan. Before introducing the concept of antilibrary, Taleb reflects on the library of Italian writer Umberto Eco, which contained a staggering 30,000 tomes. It wasn’t Eco’s intention to ever read his entire library — in fact, he purported that the library served as a reminder of everything he didn’t (and wouldn’t ever) know. That constant reminder is what kept Eco not only humble, but also intellectually hungry and perpetually curious.

Inspired by Eco, Taleb introduces the antilibrary in The Black Swan by saying:

“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.”

Practicing a little tsundoku and building your own antilibrary serves to set a goal for yourself: to never stop seeking knowledge and growth. Like Eco, it can keep you humble, hungry and curious. So the next time you wonder whether you should buy another book that will end up just sitting on your bookshelf, the answer is yes, you should. 

A bookstore with cluttered stacks of books
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