Anti-libraries and anti-scholars

On the importance of the books you havent read

In The Black Swan Nassim Nicholas Taleb references both Umberto Eco’s enormous library of books and his attitude that a personal library is not a badge of honour but rather a collection of tools.

As Maria Popova explains in Umberto Eco’s Antilibrary: Why Unread Books Are More Valuable to Our Lives than Read Ones Taleb builds from Eco’s view to coin the parable of the Anti-Library (the books in your collection that you chose to collect but haven’t read) and the Anti-Scholar :

“Let us call an antischolar - someone who focuses on the unread books, and makes an attempt not to treat his knowledge as a treasure, or even a possession, or even a self-esteem enhancement device - a skeptical empiricist.”

Taleb uses these concepts as part of his overall thesis that our collective vulnerability to “Black Swan” events is in part driven by an over-focus on what we know, vs what we don’t know. The other side of that coin is the proposition that to increase our exposure to positive Black Swans we need to tinker around in the edges of our knowledge.

I find this idea intuitively interesting and at the same a source of both comfort and inspiration. Comfort, because I often feel that compared to many of the people in my knowledge network I am lazy at reading, and even lazier at distilling and sharing insight. Inspiration, because it suggests there is value in understanding why I collect books or other references even if I don’t read them immediately - these are weak signals about the thoughts that might be just beyond my conscious knowledge.

So how to make use of these weak signals?

When it comes to creating pragmatic approaches to personal knowledge, Ton Zjilstra is a great source. In Surfacing my Anti-Library he considers his own collection of books that he has chosen to acquire (a form of curation) but has not yet read and proposes these approaches:

  • 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.
  • Keep checking out recommendations from peers, and what other books the ones I enjoy currently reading are referencing
  • maybe I should [write a blog post] 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

I can see things there I could easily adapt for my own practice.

In a final irony, The Black Swan has been in my anti-library for a couple of years, sitting in my Kindle at the start of Part One!

Proactive application of technology to business

My interests include technology, personal knowledge management, social change