The Anti-Library: Embracing our unread articles
A short essay on the value of exploration versus consumption
We’re all bombarded with content, and deeply engage with approximately none of it. The more great creators, curators, and friends we follow, the more content scroll by. Why do we spend time filtering information we never use?
For books, Nassim Taleb calls this phenomenon the “anti-library”:
“[…] a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. […] the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.”
His point is not to cover blank spots with unread books, but to cherish the excitement of learning. However unlike bookshelves, we rarely revisit our online libraries. The joy of exploration is replaced by the pressure to keep up.
We’re rarely even using the internet as a library. Looking up answers needs to be quick, and the pages you visit serve that need. News and social feeds keep us informed about people, communities, and events with secondary information content.
You don’t need to think deeply or read long articles to get specific answers or a broad awareness. By subscribing to more sources you cover more ground, discover the unexpected, and create optionality — which is both intuitively valuable and addictive. Ever-growing read-it-later lists and bookmark collections are our greatest tools to defer thinking into the future.
Yet it’s a hard task to make sense of current events. On many topics, we sensibly copy the arguments and conclusions of the people we trust. The danger of news feeds is to conflate awareness with understanding — the latter requires more strict filtering than scrolling through your feed and skimming headlines.
We’re always building on other people’s work, and classic books are biased just like news articles. But it’s particularly hard to evaluate information that comes to you because it’s new, not because it’s relevant. Thoughtful arguments take time to form and validate, so most new things you see are noise.
Think about how we explore topics we actually want to learn about — it’s not consuming content that just turns up in front of us. We read and research decades-old books, click through dozens of links, and ask friends for recommendations. You seek information for the fun of it, not engage to get something out of the way. It’s fundamentally different from scrolling through your feed passively.
We don’t have to be unbiased about, or deeply understand everything. Few topics are important and relevant enough for that, and there’s value in the unexpected. But it’s too easy for passive consumption to be our default method of engagement, process of knowledge acquisition, main conversation topic, and favorite distraction.
There’s also no point in spending time on what’s not valuable to us. So instead of trying to be informed about everything, be curious — what you explore will naturally be relevant, more objective, and worth your time.
Let’s see our growing read-it-later lists and bookmark collections as our personal anti-library. A place you enjoy exploring for the fun of it, not an inbox to dreadfully manage or never visit. Put new content you see into your library and only look at it when you want to.
Be proud of what you want to explore, not of the articles you read or newsletters you follow. Explore more and consume less.
Stay focused online.
Sign up for the next Lindy Letter if you liked this one. Not to keep up, but to create better incentives for exploration together.