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On Keeping an Umberto Eco-like Anti-Library

In Reading Redux, Plus A 501 Productivity Roundup I wrote:
Lest you think having a large candidates library is bad, consider this passage from Taleb's The Black Swan: "Read books are far less valuable than unread ones." (He attributes the "anti-library" to Umberto Eco.)

To this reader Jim emailed me this question:
What exactly is the point of the anti-library? The things we don't know is more important than the things we do?

Good question! I'm still wrapping my head around the idea. First, here's the original passage, via Umberto Eco's Anti-Library:
The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and non dull. 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 read-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.

My unread books are an expression of faith. I'm banking on my future self needing them some day, and I want to give him everything he needs when the time comes. It's a kind of preparation for the unknown, I suppose. Already there have been times when I was happy I could search my library for knowledge on various topics, say when I get a media inquiry or write a blog post.

The library is also symbolic - a tangible representation of my unknowledge, and the fact that I acknowledge the limits of what I know. OK, I admit I'm full of crap, but there may be something to its reflecting an important perspective that needs reinforcing: Taleb's view that there are two ways to approach randomness: Skeptical Empiricism and the a-Platonic School (ideas based on skepticism, on the unread books in the library) vs. The Platonic Approach (ideas based on beliefs, on what they think they know). (I don't deeply understand the philosophy here - anyone care to comment?)

My anti-library is growing, and it does invoke a bit of unease. All that work to do! So much I don't know! So much I'd love to learn! At the same time I feel some pride when I look at my shelves, and I respect the spirit of insatiable curiosity sitting behind those books.

In the end I'll keep growing mine (and whittling away at them) because I trust that I'll need them someday. Plus, it's a fun test for guests! I'll finish with a comment on Eye in the Sky: From my 'Umberto Eco's Antilibrary':
Perhaps it is in that our antilibraries represent the person we would like to be (the one that has read those books) and the one we would be if only we weren't so busy being this person. When we finally do read one of those books, it is a little graduation.
(I detect a ritual there.)

What do you think?

Reader Comments (16)

I am really curious to know some of the books in your Anti-Library. A followup post I feel is in order with some of your key choices and why.

April 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPatrick Rhone

A few months I changed the way I organize my books and (unknowingly) embraced the anti-library idea. I put all the books I have *not* read (or yet finished reading) at eye-level, and the read books lower on the shelves.

I have read more books recently because the barrier to choosing a book to read (I have six full bookcases) was lowered ... now I know I can choose any book in the unread section, rather than mentally review whether or not I'd read every single book as I went along. I'm much happier with the anti-library out front and center.

April 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMarina Martin

...is far superior to my approach of reprimanding myself every time I buy a book when there are so many unread books on my shelves. Thanks so much Matt!

- Mary

April 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMary Abraham

Thanks for the suggestion, Patrick.

April 7, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Hi Marina.

put all the books *not* read at eye-level, and the read books lower on the shelves

Neat. Mine is opposite my desk in line of site at eye level or lower. My [ Currently reading stack | http://matthewcornell.org/blog/2007/03/reading-workflow-based-on-leveens.html ] is scattered around the house.

(I have six full bookcases)

Whew! Amazon loves you?

Thanks very much for the comment

P.S. 1) You're an impressive gal. 2) I love your site [ 101 Goals in 1,001 Days | http://101goalsin1001days.com/ ], partly because as part of [ Think, Try, Learn: A scientific method for discovering happiness. | http://www.thinktrylearn.com/ ] I'm creating a repository of experiments to try.

April 7, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

You're welcome, Mary. Reprimanding sucks.

April 7, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

BTW I found a meme tag for this, originating with [ What is in your Antilibrary? | http://soobdujour.blogspot.com/2008/03/what-is-in-your-antilibrary.html ]

I'd like to pose a question to those who read this blog entry: What are three to five books on your shelf that lay unread and what knowledge do you hope to retrieve from them?

(Side note: Googling [ meme tag | http://www.google.com/search?q=meme+tag ] gets some specific tags, but there's no wikipedia entry for it. Surprising. Interestingly, in an example of synchronicity I found a 1998 MIT paper [ Meme Tags and Community Mirrors: Moving from Conferences to Collaboration | http://www.cs.uml.edu/~fredm/papers/community-mirrors.pdf ]. It apparently involves wearing a gadget around the neck while interacting at conferences. Bonus: Schmooze rates, and pictures!)

April 7, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

I'm a huge fan of Nassim Taleb. Fooled by Randomness (now inexplicably out of print) is one of the most important books I've ever read, a truly life-changing book. One of the central ideas of The Black Swan is that what you don't know has far more influence on outcomes than what you know or think you know, and that smart decision-makers carry with them the knowledge that what they don't know is almost certain to blow up their plan, and that the likelihood that their plan will blow up is very, very close to 100%. This is the context in which I think about the anti-library. The act of acquiring books is a way of factoring what you don't know into your knowledge-base. It's a way of saying, "there's more to this, and I don't know what the important information is, so I'm going to bring what I don't know closer to me." It's a way of thinking as much as it is an actual collection of books.

For myself, it's important for me to distinguish between knowledge and information, signal and noise (a basic concept in Fooled by Randomness). Having a shelf of books about, saying, de-cluttering your life, comes too close to noise for me. I think Taleb would say that moving from one fixed idea argued by one person to another fixed idea argued by someone else, through the canon of accepted thinking from one end of the spectrum to the other, is as likely to create a closed system of thought that isn't resilient enough to deal with the unexpected as it is to actually enlighten a person. In Blogland, "information overload" is taken to mean, "there's so much good stuff to read, and not enough time." In Taleb's world view, a surfeit of information actually removes your ability to recognize what you don't know. It "fools" you into thinking that you know the "right" answer. The anti-library is the catalog of what you don't know. It's far more important, as a practical matter, than what you know or think you know.

I'm reminded of Marlon Brando's famous Playboy interview with Lawrence Grobel, in which he says that he used to read all the time, but finally stopped because information was of no use to him. Grobel interviewed him on his island in Tahiti; Brando told him that he no longer read anything except Shakespeare. Everything that was worth knowing was contained in Shakespeare.

April 7, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGreenman

I found [ Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets | http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1400067936?ie=UTF8&tag=masidbl-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=1400067936 ], BTW. With that kind of recommendation, I've no choice but to order it!

It's a way of thinking as much as it is an actual collection of books.

Well said. It was what I was trying to get at.

Having a shelf of books about, saying, de-cluttering your life, comes too close to noise for me.

I see your point. However, these books (I have many dozens) were useful when I was absorbing the best ideas in the field. The good news is that in the last three years I've been able to get a large percentage of them into my head (and I'll be publishing them this year). They're still occasionally valueble as reference material, but yes, for the most part they represent the past.

My favorite books are the deep ones, those that change how I look at the world. de bono's come to mind, as does The 80-20 principle and (at a practical level) David Allen's. I love those that are meta tools.

Everything that was worth knowing was contained in Shakespeare.

I love it. For the things that ail us as humans, I bet he's right. Guess I better add the works to my shelf...

April 8, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Laura talks about things in our lives "paying rent", ie. they should have present value for the space they are taking up. I expect you'd agree, so the argument becomes these books are investments in your future self (and your capacity to respond on short notice to a research/information need). But the opposite argument for me is - will a _better_ book be available by the time you want to research that subject? Or even a better technology? (eg. Kindle v7). I'm decreasingly buying DVDs, CDs and books in the hope that I can have a richer set of information resources that take up less space and are more dynamically updatable...

May 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNathan

Hi Nathan. Paying rent - a nice idea. Thanks! Reminds me of [ present value | http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Present_value ]?

> will a _better_ book be available by the time you want to research that subject?

Great point. My thinking is that I can't predict whether one will show up, and that I think that the one(s) I buy now *are* ready to ripen. It's always a risk when there's improvement. That's a very good argument for only buying books on topics that... change? Maybe you can always find something on static topics, so no purchase is needed? I have to think about this (thanks for that!)

> Or even a better technology? (eg. Kindle v7)

When I've struggled with this in the past, it comes down to whether you need it now or not. Waiting is a good idea when 1) prices are dropping or important features are rising, and 2) you don't mind waiting.

Thanks for the comments. BTW the link to your site is broken (site down?)

May 11, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

I have started an anti-library in an effort to keep myself "intellectually humble." There is so much I don't know and it is worthwhile to keep this perspective because it forces me to keep an open mind and to constantly challenge my own assumptions.

May 11, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJack Uldrich

Thanks a ton for that perspective, Jack. Very important. Made my day.

May 12, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell
this article puts into words how I feel about my meager library. I
have many more books I ought to read than books I have read. I'll never
have 30,000 books. I may never again have 1,000 but I hope I always have
the love of the books I have.

November 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Watling Jr.
I cut down my library dramatically after switching back to programming. Of the books I kept, I'm in a state where I'll probably not refer to any in the near future. That may change as I refill my intellectual reservoir. Thanks for writing, Robert.
November 23, 2011 | Registered CommenterMatthew Cornell
For those that want to catalog their library, check out www.LibraryThing.com.

You can add tags such as "read", "to be read", "science", "biography", etc. Books are easily added and lots of metadata is attached to your books as you add them. Your library is compared to similar libraries where you can browse those libraries to search for books you may find interesting.
March 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRichard Dickison

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