Antilibraries and the value of the books you own but have not read
Are unread books more important than the books you've read?
Introducing the antilibrary
After my recent post on the topic of public libraries I’m turning to a different but related topic: the antilibrary, a term coined by Nicholas Nassim Taleb in his book The Black Swan. At the heart of this topic is a very important question: how important is a book that you’ve read vs. a book that you have in your possession but you haven’t read (yet)?
But first here’s a quote from the inimitable film maker John Waters to express one point of view (including a misquotation):
Clearly John Waters has strong opinions about book ownership and reading! The controversy about the use of the word impotent vs. important (it seems clear that he used the word impotent) adds some spice to the debate. His quote is also useful in examining an alternate point of view, or at least how some people have interpreted Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s concept of the antilibrary. Taleb describes the antilibrary in reference to a passage about Umberto Eco.
Nicholas Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan (H/T The Marginalian)
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.
More on the concept from Taleb:
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.
Interestingly enough the Japanese have a term for something like an antilibrary: tsundoku, a personal collection of unread books.
Is an unread book more valuable than one you’ve read?
First of all, let’s get one thing straight: there is no real difference between an antilibrary and a library. Any library will contain a mixture of books that you’ve read and those you haven’t. There is no physical room or object that is an antilibrary unless you purposely segregate your read books from your unread books. The antilibrary is merely a mental construct, resembling tsundoku but with added meaning.
To me, the question is really about the value of a book. Does reading a book make it more or less valuable than a book you haven’t read? My immediate answer is that a book only has value once you read it and hopefully use whatever it has taught you. An unread book represents mystery and potential, which seems exciting, but if you never read it then it’s just inventory. An unread book is basically working capital that’s tied up and doing no more than helping other books to stand up straight by its mere presence.
Here’s something else to consider: retention of information. I tend not to remember everything about a book that I read. Some books are not meant to be read in their entirety, like reference books. Reference books are there to be used when and as needed, like a dictionary. A reference book’s value comes from its potential, not whether or not you read it all. Even if I’ve already read a book it still has value for me (mainly because I don’t have photographic memory).
And, honestly, some books demand to be reread. Other books are what I think of as until books: books that you can’t fully understand and appreciate until you’re ready for them. It’s a good idea to know about these and to have them around when you’re ready for them.
The justification for an antilibrary of unread books
Both Eco and Taleb seem fixated on the value of unread books. Eco thought that building up a collection of unread books was an investment as well as a sign of both wisdom and humility: the bigger the collection of unread books, the greater the acknowledgement of how much there is to learn about the world and how comparatively small one person’s knowledge of it can be.
The thing that bothers me the most about the antilibrary concept is that it frames book acquisition as collecting if you frame it too narrowly. Don’t get me wrong: I like collecting things. I have boxes full of comic books and trading cards. They have given me joy over the years.
On the other hand, if you were to collect toys and never play with them… well, watch the first three Toy Story movies and tell me what you think. I think it’s a similar concept. An unread book is an unloved book, unless you are simply making it wait for its turn or holding it in reserve just in case.
I think you should buy books with the intent to read them, or at least plan to read at least one page. Some of us acquire more books than we can ever read, although if there’s any person who will succeed in reading every book she owns it’s.
Digital books aren’t different from physical books in this regard. They exchange the constraints of physical space with digital storage but the concept still applies.
It could be that I’m being needlessly critical of one small concept in someone else’s book. Antilibrary is a term that you rarely encounter these days and I don’t know of anyone who has tried to create one for the sake of having one. And of course, I don’t expect anyone to take my advice seriously, including me, because I’ll buy books whenever I want (or can) for my own reasons. Sometimes I do simply want to collect a book, just because.
After reading all of this, I realize what I dislike about the whole concept: the name. An antilibrary is a term that simply makes no sense. It sounds like something that houses the opposite of books, which is to me is simply ignorance or a lack of knowledge.
Just create a shelf for your unread books and be done with it. But, in one final grudging acknowledgement, fill that shelf with books that will educate you or entertain you. No one could ever think that was a bad idea. But, you know, at least think about reading them.
Am I being too picky? Am I just a cranky pants who was stuck for a topic this week? Or do you think I might be right? If you have something to say on this important topic, an anti-comment would be the worst possible thing, so please, share your thoughts in the comments!
Further reading about antilibraries that helped inform this essay:
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