The Antilibrary

Follow Your Curiosity in an Antilibrary

Bob Ewing
April 5, 2024
The Antilibrary

Talking Big Ideas.

“A good library is filled with mostly unread books. That’s the point.” 
~ Farnum Street

On Tuesday, I went for a bike ride with my buddy Sam.  

Durango has some of the best mountain trails on the planet, and Sam is an expert on how to navigate them. We rode for about three hours and had good conversation. Sam is one of my favorite people to talk with because he’s a smart optimist who loves to read and then discuss ideas while playing outside.   

We stopped on a ridgeline overlooking the town and took a picture. I told Sam that I haven’t been able to start the second book in the Three-Body Problem trilogy because I keep getting distracted. I finished the first book a couple weeks ago and it was fantastic. I’m pumped to read the next two. 

The problem is there are so many other books I’m excited to explore. We were talking about Jon Haidt’s The Anxious Generation and I mentioned that it pairs well with another new book, Bad Therapy. Both are heavy and a bit depressing, so it’s good to balance them with Hannah Ritchie’s Not The End of the World and Chris Anderson’s Infectious Generosity

These new releases are stacked next to my bed, along with a bunch of other books. They all have folded pages, underlined passages, and scribbled notes in the margin – but I haven’t read any cover to cover. (The exception is Rob Henderson’s brilliant new memoir Troubled, which is like a bag of Kettle jalapeño chips – once you open it, it’s impossible to stop yourself from devouring the whole thing.)  

Sam said that he reads one book at a time and sticks with it until he’s done. He likes diving deep, staying focused, and getting the feeling of accomplishment from completion. 

I prefer to take a different path. 

Sam and me on a ridgeline overlooking Durango.

I used to try Sam’s approach – just one book at a time, don’t stop until you hit the finish line – but I’d inevitably stall out and stop reading altogether. I’d feel guilty and inept. 

Then I came across Mortimer Adler’s classic, How to Read a Book. He explains that there are two distinct methods of reading: passive and active. 

Passive reading is what we learn in school: Start at the beginning and read each word in order until the end. This can be useful for things like manuals, newspapers, novels, and narrative non-fiction. But it forces us to conform to the path the author sets. 

Adler recommends active reading. Give each book you buy a quick inspectional read. Take a little time to flip through it like a detective, discovering the author’s thesis and main ideas. And for certain books that continue to spark your curiosity, dive deep into them. More broadly, read across several books focusing on understanding ideas and allowing your curiosity to run wild. Be bound by nothing but your excitement to learn. 

Patrick Collison, the bibliophile tech inventor, buys any book that captures his interest. He describes his house like this: “there’s books in the kitchen, there’s books in my bedroom, there’s books on my bed and just strewn everywhere.”

Collison says he doesn’t even start half the books he buys and finishes perhaps a third of the books he starts. Tyler Cowen, a polymath and celebrated super-reader, is even more ruthless: “I start ten or so books for every one I finish.”

The night before my ride with Sam I stayed up past midnight reading David McCullough’s 1776. I happened across it while digging through a pile of books in my office. McCullough’s stories of George Washington fascinated me, so I stopped reading to ask Chat GPT about the single best biography on Washington. Chat said it is Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life. I found a used copy on Amazon and was about to buy it when I figured I’d check my personal library first. I looked through my biography section and to my delight found it there. 

I spent another hour reading Chernow before finally going to bed. 

“I came up with this hack where I started treating books as throwaway blog posts… I felt no obligation to finish any book. Now, when someone mentions a book to me, I buy it. At any given time, I’m reading somewhere between ten and twenty books.” 
~ Naval Ravikant

Nassim Taleb tells a story in The Black Swan about the Italian philosopher Umberto Eco, who had a personal library with more than 30,000 books. Most people who visited Eco would be awed by his massive collection and ask whether he’d read all the books. Eco’s response would be: “No, these are the ones I have to read by the end of the month. I keep the others in my office.”

Taleb says the visitors are missing the point and Eco was right to joke with them. Your personal library “should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means” allows you to buy. He continues: 

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.

Your personal library is not a collection of everything you’ve read. It’s a collection of all the most amazing people and ideas and stories – across time and space – that you’ve chosen to gather together into your home. It’s a tribe of mentors you have on call to turn to whenever you want. 

As Ness Labs says, “an antilibrary is an ode to everything you want to explore.”

Tuesday night, after my bike ride with Sam, I didn’t return to the Washington biography or 1776. Two books I pre-ordered months ago were finally published and waiting at my house: Ethan Mollick’s Co-Intelligence and Dr. Gagne’s Sociopath: A Memoir. They became my dates for the evening.

I’m confident I’ll finish several of the books I’ve mentioned in this piece. But not all of them. I love being able to read whatever I want guilt-free, constrained only by the bounds of my imagination and what I choose to explore and clarify through writing. I love how seemingly unrelated books and ideas mesh together in my mind in unexpected ways. 

I admit that most of the books I’ve bought I haven’t thoroughly read. And most of the books I’ve opened I haven’t finished. That’s exactly how I want it to be: following my curiosity wherever it leads. 

Latest Posts