from the world's big
The value of owning more books than you can read
Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love my tsundoku.
- 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
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.
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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How can we promote the creation of new neurons - and why is it so important?
- Neurogenesis, the birth of neurons from stem cells, happens mostly before we are born - as we are formed in the womb, we are generating most of what we need after birth.
- After birth, neurogenesis is still possible in two parts of the brain: the olfactory bulb (which is responsible for our sense of smell) and the hippocampus (which is responsible for memory, spatial navigation, and emotional processing).
- Research from the 1960s proves creating new neurons as adults is possible, and modern-day research explains how (and why) we should promote new neuron growth.
Two parts of the brain can continue growing through neurogenesis<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkyMzk2NS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwOTAwODc1MH0.4GDLlZmkwuD0-pJ0s0UWcUoYXMy95a-AM61a_QAlAeA/img.jpg?width=980" id="2e77e" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4e23499fdf3b2185533979083fd02db7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="brain made of twigs and plants concept of neurogenesis" />
Neurogenesis is still possible well into adulthood in two very important parts of the human brain.
Image by EtiAmmos on Shutterstock<p>Although most people are aware that aging or bad habits such as heavy alcohol use can contribute to the deterioration of our brains, not many of us give thought to how we can generate new brain cells.</p><p>Neurogenesis, the birth of neurons from stem cells, happens mostly before we are born - as we are formed in the womb, we are generating most of what we need after birth. </p><p><strong>After birth, however, neurogenesis is still possible in two parts of the brain:</strong></p><ul><li>The olfactory bulb, which is a structure of the forebrain that's responsible for our sense of smell. </li><li>The hippocampus, which is a structure of the brain located within the temporal lobe (just above your ears) - this area is important for learning, memory, regulation, of emotions and spatial navigation. </li></ul><p>Of course, when this information first came to light <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/13860748" target="_blank">back in the 1960s</a>, the next natural question was: How do we promote neurogenesis in those areas where it's still possible? </p><p>Researchers today believe there are activities you can do (some of them may be things you already do on a daily basis) that can promote neurogenesis in your brain. </p><p><strong>Why is it important to promote the growth of new neurons in adulthood?</strong></p><p>We produce an estimated 700 million neurons per day in the hippocampus - this means by the time we reach the age of 50, we will have exchanged the neurons we were born within that area of the brain with new (adult-generated) neurons. </p><p>If we don't promote this exchange with the growth of new neurons, we may block certain abilities these new neurons help us with (such as keeping our memory sharp, for example). </p>
4 ways to promote neurogenesis in your brain<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkyMzk2Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNTE3NjczNH0.qyzh_AIUPKfaQIa1QEq4yTNCAAK9nYkH3HFV9vWXwww/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C0%2C0%2C104&height=700" id="64a68" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ee1307fe2dd61ae425552da56db3c5ff" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="child playing trumpet concept of learning a new instrument neurogenesis" />
Learning a new instrument helps promote neurogenesis.
Photo by DenisProduction.com on Shutterstock<p><strong>Intermittent fasting</strong></p><p><a href="https://law.stanford.edu/2015/01/09/lawandbiosciences-2015-01-09-intermittent-fasting-try-this-at-home-for-brain-health/" target="_blank">A 2015 Stanford study</a> examined the link between <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/6-ways-to-do-intermittent-fasting#section1" target="_blank">intermittent fasting</a> and neurogenesis. Calorie restriction and fasting can not only increase synaptic plasticity and promote neuron growth but it can also decrease your risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases and boost cognitive function. </p><p><u>Two of the most common ways you can intermittently fast are: </u></p><ul><li>16 hours per day every day - this is a method where you are able to eat for an 8 hour period of the day and fast for 16 hours of the day. Many people begin their "fast" after dinner, pushing their morning meal far enough towards lunch that most of their "off" eating time happens while they are asleep anyways. </li></ul><ul><li>24 hours every week - this is a method where once a week you fast for an entire day. Some people prefer this method because the rest of the week can resume as normal - but for many, this is a difficult way to fast. </li></ul><p><strong>Traveling to new places</strong></p><p>While traveling is something many of us enjoy — scenic routes and new fun experiences — these things also promote neurogenesis while we're on vacation. <a href="https://www.chicagotribune.com/travel/ct-xpm-2014-01-28-sc-trav-0128-travel-mechanic-20140128-story.html" target="_blank">Paul Nussbaum</a>, a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Pittsburgh, explains that the mental benefits of traveling are very clear.<br></p><p><em>"When you expose your brain to an environment that's novel and complex or new and difficult, the brain literally reacts. Those new and challenging situations cause the brain to sprout dendrites (dangling extensions) which grow the brain's capacity." </em></p><p><strong>Learning a new instrument</strong></p><p>The mental health benefits of music have long been studied, but did you know that learning a new instrument can promote new neuron growth? </p><p>According to <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2996135/" target="_blank">this 2010 study</a>, learning to play a new musical instrument is an intense, multisensory motor experience that requires that acquisition and maintenance of skills over your entire lifetime - which of course, promotes the new formation of new neural networks. </p><p>When is the best time to begin learning a new instrument? Childhood, of course. </p><p><em>"Learning to play a new musical instrument in childhood can result in long-lasting changes in brain organization," </em>according to the study mentioned above. </p><p>While learning an instrument in adulthood will also promote neurogenesis, children who began training with a musical instrument before the age of 7 have shown that they have a significantly larger corpus callosum (the area of the brain the allows communication between the two hemispheres of the brain) than many adults. </p><p><strong>Reading novels</strong></p><p>A study from <a href="http://esciencecommons.blogspot.com/2013/12/a-novel-look-at-how-stories-may-change.html" target="_blank">Emory University</a> showed there was an increase in ongoing connectivity in the brains of participants after reading the same (fiction) novel. </p><p>In this study, enhanced brain activity was observed in the region that control physical sensations and movement. Reading a novel, according to lead researcher Gregory Berns, can transport you into the body of the protagonist. </p><p>This ability to shift into another mental state is a vital skill that promotes healthy neurogenesis in those areas of the brain. </p>
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- Crisis times tend to increase self-centered acts.
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