Giving and Taking Shape

On the incarnations of a side project and evolution of an idea: how I’ve conceived, reconceived and re-reconceived “Antilibraries”.

This is the ongoing story of a project I’m working on, Antilibraries. It’s a look at how such projects can be containers for continued exploration of personal interests that are deeply felt, but also still coming into definition.

It’s a smattering of meditations on how projects slowly change and grow in ways both natural and forced. And it’s my attempt to articulate the unpredictability, the forces of chance, that so often govern the things we make and attempt to nurture.

Note: I just published another post — “Everyone Needs an Antilibrary!” — with more background on this project and why I think antilibraries are important!

A Spark of Intrigue

I’ve always liked books and reading; I’ve grown up immersed in books, almost drowning in them at times (ask me about my dad’s old apartment). Books have always exuded a certain magic; I’ve long enjoyed browsing libraries and bookstores, as well as seeking out and researching new books online.

A couple years ago I read Black Swan and saw mention of the antilibrary: Umberto Eco’s cavernous collection of books — many of them unread. Taleb’s point here was that unread books, one’s latent library of potential knowledge, are more valuable than those you’ve read already. I liked this, and jotted it down in my newly created “favorite ideas” document.

An Idea Shared

A little while later (about a year ago now) I was finishing up the Orbital Boot Camp and thinking a lot about self-directed learning and the evolving future of education. One result of these bubbling thoughts and projects: I finally decided to realize my wish to create some sort of event series focused around sharing ideas.

This premise for conceptual show-and-tells became an ongoing series of “Idea Exchange” dinners. At the first one, I presented the first idea: the antilibrary. And it entered back into my consciousness…

Serendipity of Wish Lists

I’ve been keeping wish lists on Amazon for a long time now, since high school at least. At first just one big list, mostly books. Now I maintain several lists, including ones for home products, gadgets, coveted camping gear, gifts for family members…but still, mostly books.

I have one default list for books and miscellaneous items, now numbering well over 2,000. Then I have another, more important “most wanted” list. This one all books. Special books, magical books, evocative, rich in imagination and brimming with knowledge:

Gravity’s Rainbow.

The I Ching, or, Book of Changes.

The Oldest Living Things in the World.

Behind Bars: The Definitive Guide to Music Notation.

Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change.

An Experiment with Time (Studies in Consciousness).

The Systems View of the World.

The Gormenghast Novels.

Landscape Futures.

Books to pack my shelves and frame my thoughts and fill my mind…someday. When there’s time. If there’s time.

Finally, a Blog

I heard about the 100 Days Project earlier this year, and loved the idea of it. I’d kept up a similar daily writing exercise for a year straight already, and this seemed like a more focused version of the “daily creative habit” practice.

So I decided I’d participate, and that my project would be writing each day, for 100 days, about one of the books in my own personal antilibrary — those drawn from my “most wanted” wish list, which had grown to 100+ books and would provide plenty of raw material to keep me writing. I registered the domain, set up a Tumblr, and started writing.

Failing to a New Beginning

This plan worked for about the first 40 or 50 days. Even then, I didn’t hold myself to the highest standards of daily diligence. Unlike my long-kept daily writing streak, where I scribbled 750 words no matter what, with this project I’d skip days, batch them to catch up, and otherwise manipulate myself into giving it less than my all.

I don’t know why exactly but just shy of the halfway point I got further and further behind and never caught up. I started to post just a couple times a week, then trailed off completely. Until today I’ve gone two months without a new post.

A “Generative Course” That Wasn’t

One thing I tried, or at least conceived — at the same time as I was starting the 100 days antilibraries project — was creating a course on how to build a daily habit. The idea was that this would be open and ongoing, a way to build on my experience and share what I learned, and in doing so iteratively improve a course that would help people do the same.

I got two or three weeks into this before abandoning it with zero fanfare. Four or five friends signed up, and miraculously one or two strangers…but I saw no real engagement, and wasn’t motivated to continue.

I still like the idea, but it was either the wrong time, the wrong format, or simply a lack of sustained effort on my part. Probably all three. One of the hardest things about side projects is that you can’t tell right away whether or not they’re working; they always start with an audience of one. And it’s hard to acknowledge, but necessary to say: I probably failed to give this particular branch enough time to grow.

Now…a Newsletter

So, I’m on to the next evolutionary stage of this idea. I’m still trying to find the best format — both best for me as creator (i.e. what will make it most likely for me to follow through consistently?) and best for engaging an audience, for making people care.

That second part matters to me perhaps more than I’d like to acknowledge. It’s more or less common knowledge that when it comes to digital projects, email is the most direct and engaging way to connect with an audience and build a relationship over time. I’ve thought a lot about how to reboot the antilibraries project, and think a weekly newsletter is worth a shot. It will (I hope) make it easier to engage an audience, and will have a cadence easier to sustain than daily Tumblr posts.

It’s a starting point, at least. I plan to share a few books a week, and I promise they’ll all be super interesting. If you’d like to sign up, you can do so via the link below!

And Beyond?

I have other ideas for where this project could go. Some feasible and easy to test, others requiring work, maybe more than I want to give it.

I’d like to try a podcast, to discuss others’ antilibraries. It could be interesting to solicit guest-curated book lists. I’d love to explore ways to read and discuss the books I share with a wider audience — a digital book club of sorts.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. For now, I’ll have to take this one day, one week at a time, and give this project time to take the shape it needs.

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And if you have questions or suggestions, shoot me a note!