It’s a strange word; a strange idea.
I first came across it in Black Swan, where Nassim Nicholas Taleb describes Umberto Eco’s massive library of 30,000+ volumes, many of them unread. These unread books, Eco’s antilibrary, embody the potential energy of knowledge, of books and reading and learning. Their value lies not in what they’ve already taught you, but what they’ll lead you to.
I love this idea. It makes me consider all the things I’d like to read and learn more about, and makes tangible how I might get there, slowly converting books from unread to currently-digesting to internalized, always adding more to my shelves as I explore the adjacent possibilities of my interests.
Why You Need an Antilibrary
You probably already have an antilibrary. Whether you have books piling up in corners of your home, or lists of “someday reads”, if you’re anything like me you always have more books in your peripheral vision than you have in front of you or under your belt.
This collection of books you know of, but have not yet read — your antilibrary — is tremendously powerful. It’s a window, a record, a goalpost, a fount of stimulus. It will open doors and take you places, direct and extend your learning.
Here are just a few of the ways thinking about this can be useful:
Decide what to read next
Having books on deck that you’re excited about means you’ll never hit a lull in your reading; you’ll be much less likely to feel bored or to stop learning.
Expand your awareness
Maintaining a diverse antilibrary is a great way to explore different areas and acquaint yourself with a wide variety of awesome new things, without making a huge commitment to read everything that comes your way.
Evaluate your options
By “pre-reading” a book — doing some research before diving in — you can triage your infinite potential library and better decide what’s worth your time. This process is useful for all sorts of research and learning!
Building Your Antilibrary
There are many ways to build, maintain, and use an antilibrary, from simple lists to a whole personal set of book notes and organizational strategies.
This is something most book-lovers probably already do in some form, but I’ll share a few particular suggestions for organizing your antilibrary.
Amazon wish list
I started creating my antilibrary without realizing it; I simply added books upon books to my Amazon wish lists, and eventually started to curate my favorites. Amazon may have a tenuous relationship with the literary world, but it’s one of the best places to learn about books without buying them; both the reviews and “look inside” feature are incredibly useful.
If you already have a personal note-taking system — Evernote, Scrivener, a bunch of plaintext files, whatever — consider how to use it to track the books in your antilibrary. A list of titles, along with a few notes on what’s covered in each book and why it intrigues you, is a great place to start!
There are a lot of tools, like Medium, WordPress, Tumblr, or even public Amazon lists, that make it easy to share your own antilibrary with others. I currently use Tumblr in two ways: the awesome Otlet’s Shelf theme to maintain my “favorite books list”, and a modified version of the Paper theme to host my Antilibraries website.
I only decided to use the Otlet’s Shelf theme after seeing it so many times in the wild that it became impossible to ignore. Many interesting people are sharing awesome book lists on their websites. (A few favorites: Austin Kleon. Liz Danzico. Gwern. Frank Chimero. Bret Victor. Mandy Brown.) Give them a look for inspiration, and if you’re so inclined, share your own!
I’ve been writing about the books in my own antilibrary, and sharing these posts in hopes of inspiring others to learn more about the books I find most interesting. And I’ve been finding all kinds of awesome books:
Diffusion of Innovation. The Tacit Dimension. After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation. Hyperion. The Timeless Way of Building. Perceptrons: An Introduction to Computational Geometry. Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art. Hopscotch: A Novel. Cache: Creating Natural Economies. Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs. Cool Tools: A Catalog of Possibilities. The Quantum Dice. On Dialogue. The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. Critical Path. The Control of Nature. Letters to a Young Scientist. Flight: A Quantum Fiction Novel. Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History. Infinite Jest.
It’s been a lot of fun, but I want to make it even easier to follow.
So, starting today, I’m publishing a weekly newsletter bringing a few highlights directly to your inbox.
Each week I’ll share a book (or three) along with a brief summary of why I find it interesting + a link to learn more.
Want to receive weekly book recommendations?
Sign up here: http://antilibrari.es/
And if you have questions or suggestions, shoot me a note!