Too Many Unread Books? You Have an 'Antilibrary,' and That's a Good Thing

So many books, so little time. (Photo: Creativa Images/Shutterstock )

If you're a book lover, you know how it goes. You have a stack of books on your bedside, or a bookshelf in your library with a mental "to read" sign on it. Yet you can't stop yourself from adding to the pile. This can lead to feelings of guilt over your new purchases. But I'm here to tell you to stop worrying.

What you have is an antilibrary, and it's a very good thing.

The term comes via the author of "The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable," Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who is excerpted on the Brainpickings blog. Taleb wrote:

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 that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows 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.

I love this idea that "read books are far less valuable than unread ones." It resonates with me because it's based on the idea that knowing what we don't know is more important than knowing what we do.

Know-it-alls are no fun

If you think you already know everything about a subject, you're limiting yourself, cutting yourself off from a stream of information at an artificial point. So a growing library of books you haven't read means you're consistently curious about new information — especially on subjects that have piqued your interest in the past. You're also probably open to new subjects as well, as the video above explains in greater detail.

And that mindset is a great foundation for a lifelong love of learning. We know how good learning is for both our neurobiology and our psychological health as we age. That curiosity also helps us feel young and engaged in our world.

So don't despair over your unread books or your partially read tomes. (Yes, it's really OK not to read an entire book.)

Those books just begun or not-yet-cracked-open will be there for when you do want them, and as you build your library of read and un-read books, you can start using it as you would a bigger library: Certain books may become references more than read-throughs. Or you may find that a book you bought five years ago has special relevance today. (This happened to me recently with a short-story collection by Diana Athill, in which one of the stories speaks directly to the #metoo movement from 50 years back — had I read that collection a few years ago when I bought it, I would have missed that story's point entirely.)

Letting the role of books evolve in your life is a healthy sign of curiosity. That's good for you and good for the world around you.