CTO Compass

Why embracing Tsundoku will make you more insightful and a more interesting person

CTO Compass series

Three years ago, I started a new Christmas tradition in our family.

On Christmas Eve, we celebrate Jólabókaflóðið. It is an Icelandic tradition of curling up together by the fire to read “a flood of books”.

I have always made it a point to buy books over other entertainment, and I have a rule to buy any book that interests my children. However, one side effect is that our house is littered with bookshelves with books stacked two deep. Many people might look askew at the piles of physical books strewn around. Fortunately, they don’t know the true extent of it–until they also look at the virtual pile on my Kindle.

I’ve always been a bookworm and tend to choose books over other entertainment. To encourage my children to become readers, I have a rule that whenever they show interest in a book, I buy it without a second thought. As a result, our bookshelves are often stacked two rows deep, and we still have piles of books littered around. Some people might think it’s a bit of a mess; fortunately, they don’t know the true extent of it–until they also look at the virtual pile on my Kindle.

Embracing Tsundoku

There’s a Japanese word, Tsundoku (積ん読), which describes the habit of acquiring books and letting them pile up without reading them. Most people might look at this negatively. I will try to convince you there is great power in embracing Tsundoku and building your own “anti-library”.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb first coined the term “anti-library” in his book The Black Swan when he was describing Italian writer Umberto Eco’s relationship with his books:

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^^. (bold highlighting is mine)

Every unread book is a reminder of what you don’t know

I haven’t tried to count my hoard, but I’m confident that between my physical and digital collections, I have at least several hundred unread books. Your perception informs your reality, and there are always different ways of looking at the same situation. I choose to look at my pile of unread books as a reminder of what I don’t yet know, a reminder that our knowledge is finite and imperfect. It inspires curiosity and acts as a catalyst in a lifelong journey of learning.

In our work at Foxsoft, I often say that since we build and maintain a wide variety of business systems, we have an advantage where we can bring what may be considered normal in one industry into another where it is seen as novel and have a dramatic impact on the operations of the organisation. You can gain similar by reading widely and exposing yourself to new ideas from other areas and eras. The larger the anti-library, the more chance of serendipity and insight.

Building your anti-library

Let’s say I’ve convinced you that an anti-library is a worthy endeavour. Millions of books are already in existence, hundreds more are released each day, and you only have so much time. How do you choose which books to add to your anti-library?

Start by listing books you already know you want to read. Then, ask yourself what you are curious about. Part of the goal of an anti-library is to encourage that curious streak; you want books with the potential to change your life and expose you to new ideas and ways of thinking.

If you admire historical figures, seek out works that cover their life. As you read, note other books the author references that interest you. I have an ANTILIBRARY tag in my note-taking system to flag these for later retrieval.

Remember, there is a large second-hand book market out there. We love visiting Wigtown in Scotland- the book capital of Scotland- with at least 7 or 8 second-hand bookshops in the high street. Peruse the shelves and pick books that have attractive covers. There are lots of gems off the beaten path of the bestseller lists.

Reply to this email; I will gladly recommend a few books that have profoundly changed my life.

Invest in knowledge

How big should your anti-library be? I think that’s a personal choice. Some might find having many unread books to be anxiety-inducing. The key is to stay within your means and remember that knowledge is a process and an investment in yourself. Even if you start with three unread books on your bedside table, that is an excellent step into the unknown.

⚡️ Thinking Time ⚡️


Pick five people you respect and ask each of them to recommend a book that changed their lives.

During your Thinking Time, if you feel so inspired, perhaps journal about why you respect those five people, and maybe when you ask them for their recommendation, also include a short note of gratitude for their traits.

CTO Compass series