How the Pandemic Made Me a Better Reader

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, I spent my days hunkered down at my desk. I spent my time creating and sharing technology resources for teachers.

My teachers were thrown headfirst into a world many of them weren’t prepared to experience. So, I did my best to support their remote learning work.

Those first few weeks didn’t leave much time for extracurricular activities. When I did finish the day’s work, I disconnected. Exhausted from sitting in front of a computer, I’d chill out with my family.

We played games and invested in several outdoor activities, like horseshoes and basketball.

But spring turned to summer and the school year ended, leaving me with a lot of time on my hands.

Diving Into Reading

I had to find something to occupy my time, so I retreated into the land of the written word.

I’ve always enjoyed reading but never committed to reading regularly. During those nascent months of the pandemic, I decided it was time to establish a regular reading habit.

I used GoodReads to compile a “to be read” list (TBR). At first, there were only a handful of books. I participated in Daily Stoic’s “Read to Lead” challenge and began building my list.

One of the challenges put forth in that challenge was to read a book “above your level” – rather than always reaching for your favorite genre or a book you’ve read before. Reading a more challenging book builds your “reading muscle” and likely brings new ideas to the forefront of your mind.

A challenging read is necessary for your personal growth. So, I started building my list.

Yes, I included many science fiction and fantasy books. I dove headlong into the worlds of Brandon Sanderson and regretted not diving in long before now. I found my favorite prose in Patrick Rothfuss’s “The Name of the Wind.”

If you haven’t read that excellent tome, go out right now and get it. Even if you don’t usually read fantasy books. It will make you weep.

But my journey didn’t stop there. I included Pulitzer Prize winners like “A Confederacy of Dunces” – a hilarious book with a sad back story – and biographies of Steve Jobs, Ulysses S. Grant, Harry Truman, and more.

I’ve read classics like Meditations and The History of the Peloponnesian War. I’ve discovered authors like Robert Greene, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Yuval Noah Harari, who have informed my thinking and broadened my viewpoints.

Since March 2020, I’ve read or re-read 236 books, some 74,000 pages of content. They’ve been a mix of physical, digital, and audio formats.

I’m not sharing those numbers to boast; I’m encouraging you to bump up your reading numbers. We are all busy, but if we want to expand our minds, we must make the time to do so.

Sometimes I read for pure entertainment. But, I’m often reading to learn something or expand my brain.

My TBR is now approaching 2,000 books.

Yes, you read that right. I’m in the process of building something.

Building an Antilibrary

I am well aware that I will never finish reading the books on that list for two reasons:

1. I can get through about 100 books a year. I’m working on getting through more, but I only have so much time.

2. So many of the books I read lead me down a path to other great books, and I keep adding more to my list.

I will never read all the books on my list. And that’s ok.

There is power in understanding that you can’t learn it all. That there is always more out there in the world.

There is massive value in surrounding yourself with books that you will never read. The Japanese term for this is “tsundoku,” the stack(s) of books you’ve purchased but haven’t read.

Some people refer to those stacks of unread books as an “antilibrary.” I don’t know if I like that term since it’s still a collection of books, but whatever.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb talks about Umberto Eco’s antilibrary in his book The Black Swan. Here’s a view of Eco’s library of some 30,000 books.

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.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

We tend 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 lies in how it challenges self-estimation by constantly reminding you that there is so much more to learn. Living with this nudge daily will help improve decision-making skills and motivation for learning new things.

So stop beating yourself up for buying too many books or for having a TBR list that you could never get through in three lifetimes (like me!). All those books you haven’t read are a sign of ignorance. But if you know how ignorant you are, you’re way ahead of most other people.