The Antilibrary: Why Unread Books Are The Most Important

How are we to navigate the unknown — the vast chasm between what we know, what we don't know, and coming to grips with what is unknowable?

***

This week, I caught myself feeling guilty as I walked into my office and looked at the ever-growing number of unread books.

The library, as I call my office, is full of books I might never get to in my life let alone read this week. (See that picture above, I haven't read most of those books.) My bookshelf, which seems to reproduce on its own, is a constant source of ribbing from my friends.

“You'll never read all of those,” they say. And they're right. I won't. That's not really how it works.

“It is our knowledge — the things we are sure of — that makes the world go wrong and keeps us from seeing and learning.”

— Lincoln Steffens

Some questions are only asked by people with a fundamental misunderstanding. The friends who walk into my office and ask, “have you read all of these” miss the point of books.

In his book, The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb describes our relationship between books and knowledge using the legendary Italian writer Umberto Eco (1932-2016).

The writer Umberro 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 is that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendages but a research tool. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means … allow 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.

Taleb adds:

We tend to treat our knowledge as personal property to be protected and defended. 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. People don’t walk around with anti-résumés telling you what they have not studied or experienced (it’s the job of their competitors to do that), but it would be nice if they did. Just as we need to stand library logic on its head, we will work on standing knowledge itself on its head.

A good library is filled with mostly unread books. That's the point. Our relationship with the unknown causes the very problem Taleb is famous for contextualizing: the black swan. Because we underestimate the value of what we don't know and overvalue what we do know, we fundamentally misunderstand the likelihood of surprises.

The antidote to this overconfidence boils down to our relationship with knowledge. The anti-scholar, as Taleb refers to it, is “someone who focuses on the unread books, and makes an attempt not to treat his knowledge as a treasure, or even a possession, or even a self-esteem enhancement device — a skeptical empiricist.”

My library serves as a visual reminder of what I don't know.