Much has been written about Nassim Taleb’s famous passage in The Black Swan about the antilibrary. (Farnam Street and Maria Popova)
From The Black Swan (p1, 2008 Random House International Edition)
“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.”
“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.”
“Let us call this an antischolar — 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 take on this is that if you have a library or collection of books, and you have read them all, then you probably think that you know a lot more than you actually do. Say you had 100 books in your collection and you diligently read them all, you might think that you were knowledgeable and well-read. Whereas, for example in Eco’s case, if he’s read 100 books in his collection of 30,000, he’s as well-read as the person in the first example, but he has the added insight that he’s still got 29,900 books to read in his collection and all that yet-to-be-discovered knowledge and wisdom. He’s as well-read but knows that he’s only scratched the surface.
So the value then of an antilibrary is to remind yourself that in the grand scheme of things you don’t know very much at all. As Diotima said about Socrates: Wisest is he that knows that he knows nothing.
So besides that value (a visual reminder of your true lack of knowledge) what good is an antillibrary if you never actually make attempts to make inroads into it?
Furthermore, surely not all antilibraries are useful or worth having. What if you had a huge antilibrary full of pulp fiction like Mills and Boon?
What if instead of randomly acquiring books, we carefully built an antilibrary with different pillars of knowledge, like we were building an actual library for a town or building a bookshop? That would be better. So if it contained science books, philosophy, history, and great literature, that would surely be a better antilibrary.
Here is my antilibrary which definitely hasn’t been deliberately built. It’s scattered around at my dad’s house and at my flat. (It’s missing a box as well as my Kindle antilibrary which is growing to be massive. It’s so easy to buy Kindle books as they’re instantly fulfilled and always significantly cheaper than print books)
What’s your antilibrary like? Let me know in the comments below!