Tsundoku and the Anti-Library

The Japanese term for acquiring reading materials but letting them pile up without reading (Tsundoku) them is more universal than people would want to admit. Both digitally and physically. Just take a look around your room, your work desk, your email inbox, read-it-later applications, your note-taking apps, news feeds, and what not. It’s Tsundoku all the way to hell!

One of my connections on LinkedIn recently posted his experience with Tsundoku and asked, “… can you please suggest any tips and tricks to finish more books per month or not to engage in ‘Tsundoku.’ It was annoying because the answer was too damn obvious but I couldn’t help but respond with this:

You’re overthinking this. Read as many as you comfortable can and that’s it! I’d rather focus on learning than worry about counting the books that I’ve read and the ones I haven’t. This isn’t a race… a journey. 🙂

My thoughtless reponse to a LinkedIn post

I may have come across as a snob. But it’s been done already, I’m not going back to delete or edit it.

Back to the point — I seriously think it’s okay to engage in Tsundoku. Because the alternative is to not buy or grow a wishlist that eventually becomes as big as Amazon’s catalog. And then you forget all about it and create another wishlist. I say that from experience as I’ve got wishlists from 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020. And I had to dig into these and put the books into different categories for easy reference. That’s growing too!

Listen, Tsundoku or not, I believe in having as many unread books in your library as you can! This collection of unread books, as Nassim Taleb would call it, is called ‘Anti-library.’ The whole point of having a library filled with unread books is to keep reminding yourself how much you don’t know. Else we simply get overconfident about the things that we know.

It matters because our relationship with knowledge is a tricky one — we undervalue what we don’t know and overvalue what we do know. Combating this is a challenge unless you’re humbled by something that constantly reminds you of how much you don’t know. An anti-library serves the purpose because it keeps me focused on knowing what I don’t know.

Taleb’s book, The Black Swan, is one of my all-time favourites and the one I most recommend. If you don’t have the time to read or have other books already in your list, don’t worry, there’s just one point of view from the book I would like you to take away:

The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have. How many of these books have you read?” and the others—a very small minority—who get the point is that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendages but a research tool. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means … allow 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.

We tend to treat our knowledge as personal property to be protected and defended. It is an ornament that allows us to rise in the pecking order. So this tendency to offend Eco’s library sensibility by focusing on the known is a human bias that extends to our mental operations. People don’t walk around with anti-résumés telling you what they have not studied or experienced (it’s the job of their competitors to do that), but it would be nice if they did. Just as we need to stand library logic on its head, we will work on standing knowledge itself on its head.

In his book, The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb describes our relationship between books and knowledge using the legendary Italian writer Umberto Eco (1932-2016). H/T Farnam Street

And yeah, keep those books coming, please.

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