Building Your Antilibrary

February 4, 2008

In The Black Swan, Taleb caught me doing something stupid. He said that only an idiot walks into someone’s library and says “Have you really read all these books?” A good library is filled with unread books– an “antilibrary.” Tucker has crates of books in perfect condition.

I used to feel guilty when I saw unread books piling up on my floor. Now I understand that it is still a step in the right direction because it reminds you of what you don’t know. It’s like the difference between kinetic and potential energy. So I have been adding to the stack. And if I had the money, I’d buy all these and probably not read them for a while.

What is in your antilibrary? What should I add to mine?

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

16 responses to Building Your Antilibrary

  1. I’ve actually been meaning to email you another book suggestion, so this comes at an opportune time.

    I don’t know if you’ve remembered to look into it, but I greatly suggest Hagakure (The Book of the Samuri) by Yamamoto Tsunetomo. This has a more micro perspective than The Art of War; while Sun Tsu offered advise on how a General should lead his army, Hagakure offers advise on how a soldier can best serve his General.

    Another book I’ll suggest is Knots by R.D. Laing. Laing was a psychologist, and his book mostly emphasizes the circular absurdity that occurs in various forms of relationships (“he won’t respect you/if you don’t punish him/for not respecting you”). It’s a dense book, but it’s short. I also like the aesthetic appeal, as the contents are just as poetic as academic. I often consult this book when I run into relationship problems.

    Finally: Zero by Charles Seife follows the historical and mathematical development of the concept of zero and infinity. More interesting than the math itself is the significance that zero has had on philosophy, religion, and governing policy.

  2. do you mean anti in the antipasti sense or the anti-aircraft sense

  3. Gore Vidal’s Lincoln. I LOVED this book, and I read it when I was just a teenager. Although slightly fictionalized, it provides an amazing indepth look into the strategist/politician that was Lincoln.

    Doris Goodwin’s Team of Rivals seems alright (I’m going through it slowly), but the writing isn’t as enjoyable and delicious as Vidal’s Lincoln.

  4. Oh, that was a two parter. My anti-library..

    Godel, Escher, Bach; The Illiad; Against the Day; The Blank Slate; The Tangled Web; The Fountainhead. I usually put big books in my anti-library–those are saved for special times, when things are going just fine.

  5. The book on your list “Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture” is AMAZING. I read “No Logo”, “Culture Jam” and some stuff by Thomas Frank before reading it – all the anti-corporate stuff. Coulda just skipped to that book. It refutes them point by point and explains why subcultures like goths, punks, emo, etc. appear, why people want to buy what’s new, and why the counterculture even happens – all with one simple theory. I can’t suggest it enough.

    Also, have you read “The Power of Now?”

    Another good book I’m in the middle of now is “Living the Martial Way : A Manual for the Way a Modern Warrior Should Think”. Breaks down how to live all that strategy stuff on a day to day basis. It’s about martial arts, but the applications are pretty far reaching.

    Love your blog by the way. It’s good to see I’m not the only one by age so dedicated to learning, understanding, and working on larger goals.

  6. A few in the anti-library: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, What is the What, and Cat’s Cradle. I know I ought to read them for their literary value, but I can’t get past this perception that the counter-culture stuff is bunch of socialist hippe garbage. Even though I’m sure I can glean a lot from them.

    How can I pick up these when the shelf above has the like of T. Sowell’s Basic Economics, The Long Tail, Blink, and the (yet unread) “Age of Turbulence” which is Greenspans memoirs?

  7. Read Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars. It’s amazing how much you can learn simply by observing the most powerful men in the ancient world in their everyday routines (as well as their defining moments).

  8. I bought The No Asshole Rule a couple months ago but it is still sitting in my antilibrary. I have heard great things about it but have yet to read it. Other than that I don’t have anything in my physical antilibrary. I guess my antilibrary has become my wish list which has 50+ books.

    Has anyone tried the Kindle? It seems like a good idea but I don’t know if it will catch on.

  9. I’m almost surprised someone already mentioned ‘Gödel, Escher, Bach’, which I just recently pulled off my antilibrary-shelf and started to read. Still up there are some Kafka, Schopenhauer (the dialectics), Wilde, Hawking, Brecht and Bukowski.

    I also recommend Nietzsche’s ‘Antichrist’; looks good on any shelf, and is a much lighter (and funnier) read than it’s commonly assumed to be, nice if you need a break from the serious stuff.

  10. I highly suggest you read Shogun by James Clavell. “This novel portrays an entire culture which essentially held [Machiavellianism] as a value; an historical rarity.”

  11. Ryan, I highly recommend Gang Leader For a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh. He’s the guy who spent years with a crack gang in Chicago, whose data was featured in Freakonomics. It’s an amazing and compelling story.

  12. Ditto Jules on Seutonius.

  13. Love’s Executioner

  14. With your interests, I’d add Robert Caro’s books – his LBJ biographies (Path to Power, Means of Ascent, and Master of the Senate) are a detailed case study in the acquisition and application of power. I think they’re referenced a few times in the 48 Laws of Power. I’ve read a lot of the books cited there, but they’re the best so far. If that 3000 page commitment is too big, go with The Power Broker – a bio of Robert Moses by the same guy which hits a lot of the same themes (identifying organizations or positions that don’t have power but could be made to, using money, parties, contracts, etc. to gain influence over people who want other things).

  15. Hi Ryan,

    Sapeisn: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, should be added to your antilibrary.


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