The value of owning more books than you can read

Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love my tsundoku.

(Photo from Wikimedia)
  • Many readers buy books with every intention of reading them only to let them linger on the shelf.
  • Statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb believes surrounding ourselves with unread books enriches our lives as they remind us of all we don't know.
  • The Japanese call this practice tsundoku, and it may provide lasting benefits.

I love books. If I go to the bookstore to check a price, I walk out with three books I probably didn't know existed beforehand. I buy second-hand books by the bagful at the Friends of the Library sale, while explaining to my wife that it's for a good cause. Even the smell of books grips me, that faint aroma of earthy vanilla that wafts up at you when you flip a page.

The problem is that my book-buying habit outpaces my ability to read them. This leads to FOMO and occasional pangs of guilt over the unread volumes spilling across my shelves. Sound familiar?

But it's possible this guilt is entirely misplaced. According to statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb, these unread volumes represent what he calls an "antilibrary," and he believes our antilibraries aren't signs of intellectual failings. Quite the opposite.

Living with an antilibrary

\u200bUmberto Eco signs a book. You can see a portion of the author's vast antilibrary in the background.

Umberto Eco signs a book. You can see a portion of the author's vast antilibrary in the background.

(Photo from Wikimedia)

Taleb laid out the concept of the antilibrary in his best-selling book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. He starts with a discussion of the prolific author and scholar Umberto Eco, whose personal library housed a staggering 30,000 books.

When Eco hosted visitors, many would marvel at the size of his library and assumed it represented the host's knowledge — which, make no mistake, was expansive. But a few savvy visitors realized the truth: Eco's library wasn't voluminous because he had read so much; it was voluminous because he desired to read so much more.

Eco stated as much. Doing a back-of-the-envelope calculation, he found he could only read about 25,200 books if he read one book a day, every day, between the ages of ten and eighty. A "trifle," he laments, compared to the million books available at any good library.

Drawing from Eco's example, Taleb deduces:

Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. [Your] 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. [Emphasis original]

Maria Popova, whose post at Brain Pickings summarizes Taleb's argument beautifully, notes that our tendency is to overestimate the value of what we know, while underestimating the value of what we don't know. Taleb's antilibrary flips this tendency on its head.

The antilibrary's value stems from how it challenges our self-estimation by providing a constant, niggling reminder of all we don't know. The titles lining my own home remind me that I know little to nothing about cryptography, the evolution of feathers, Italian folklore, illicit drug use in the Third Reich, and whatever entomophagy is. (Don't spoil it; I want to be surprised.)

"We tend to treat our knowledge as personal property to be protected and defended," Taleb writes. "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."

These selves of unexplored ideas propel us to continue reading, continue learning, and never be comfortable that we know enough. Jessica Stillman calls this realization intellectual humility.

People who lack this intellectual humility — those without a yearning to acquire new books or visit their local library — may enjoy a sense of pride at having conquered their personal collection, but such a library provides all the use of a wall-mounted trophy. It becomes an "ego-booting appendage" for decoration alone. Not a living, growing resource we can learn from until we are 80 — and, if we are lucky, a few years beyond.

Tsundoku

Book swap attendees will no doubt find their antilibrary/\u200btsundoku\u200b\u200b grow.

Book swap attendees will no doubt find their antilibrary/tsundoku grow.

(Photo from Flickr)

I love Taleb's concept, but I must admit I find the label "antilibrary" a bit lacking. For me, it sounds like a plot device in a knockoff Dan Brown novel — "Quick! We have to stop the Illuminati before they use the antilibrary to erase all the books in existence."

Writing for the New York Times, Kevin Mims also doesn't care for Taleb's label. Thankfully, his objection is a bit more practical: "I don't really like Taleb's term 'antilibrary.' A library is a collection of books, many of which remain unread for long periods of time. I don't see how that differs from an antilibrary."

His preferred label is a loanword from Japan: tsundoku. Tsundoku is the Japanese word for the stack(s) of books you've purchased but haven't read. Its morphology combines tsunde-oku (letting things pile up) and dukosho (reading books).

The word originated in the late 19th century as a satirical jab at teachers who owned books but didn't read them. While that is opposite of Taleb's point, today the word carries no stigma in Japanese culture. It's also differs from bibliomania, which is the obsessive collecting of books for the sake of the collection, not their eventual reading.

The value of tsundoku

Granted, I'm sure there is some braggadocious bibliomaniac out there who owns a collection comparable to a small national library, yet rarely cracks a cover. Even so, studies have shown that book ownership and reading typically go hand in hand to great effect.

One such study found that children who grew up in homes with between 80 and 350 books showed improved literacy, numeracy, and information communication technology skills as adults. Exposure to books, the researchers suggested, boosts these cognitive abilities by making reading a part of life's routines and practices.

Many other studies have shown reading habits relay a bevy of benefits. They suggest reading can reduce stress, satisfy social connection needs, bolster social skills and empathy, and boost certain cognitive skills. And that's just fiction! Reading nonfiction is correlated with success and high achievement, helps us better understand ourselves and the world, and gives you the edge come trivia night.

In her article, Jessica Stillman ponders whether the antilibrary acts as a counter to the Dunning-Kruger effect, a cognitive bias that leads ignorant people to assume their knowledge or abilities are more proficient than they truly are. Since people are not prone to enjoying reminders of their ignorance, their unread books push them toward, if not mastery, then at least a ever-expanding understanding of competence.

"All those books you haven't read are indeed a sign of your ignorance. But if you know how ignorant you are, you're way ahead of the vast majority of other people," Stillman writes.

Whether you prefer the term antilibrary, tsundoku, or something else entirely, the value of an unread book is its power to get you to read it.

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Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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