The Whole World is Your AntilibraryDecember 4, 2021
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In How to Travel with a Salmon, Umberto Eco writes about the shock visitors to his home experienced upon encountering the thousands of tomes in his personal library. The essence of the essay became famous when Nassim Taleb paraphrased it in his bestseller Black Swan. Much like the japanese concept of “Tsundoku,” Taleb’s opening quote now adorns many book lovers’ blog posts who share it without giving it much thought:
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. 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.
I’m a book hoarder, so the idea of an antilibrary clearly resonates. I’ve known Taleb’s version of the story focusing on the known unknowns for years, but had never looked into its source until this week. Funnily enough, after an online search for the title of the Eco book where the essay appears, I realized I had picked up the book years ago and put it into my own antilibrary to sit and wait for an opportune moment. My books spreadsheet is nearing a thousand titles, and it metaphorically sits next to the ever-expanding shelf in my living room that, as of today, includes another four volumes by Eco (out of which I’ve only read two).
According to Taleb, the value of owning unread books is in having unknown information ready at arms length at the right time. Today, however, there’s an inherent paradox in the activity of literary accumulation. Eco and his fish first traveled together back in the summer of ‘94. Coincidentally, Jeff Bezos founded Amazon around the same time, setting in motion a machine that’d ultimately change that dynamic and redefine the value of physical books. The potential value stored in our shelves was sizable then, but has since diminished. To write this essay I got Libby to instantly deliver one of the San Francisco Public Library’s copies of Black Swan to my Kindle, and if I wanted to purchase the paper version I could have had it delivered to my door within 48 hours. Thanks, Jeff.
Today, unknown unknowns aren’t resolved merely by holding more books. Personal libraries are useful research tools as long as the books in them wouldn’t be otherwise available. While a good library may shine in terms of curation, that quality could also be achieved with a simple list and no actual books. There’s a reason libraries abstract their collections into classification systems and indices: physicality, almost by definition, represents a loss in discoverability compared to a pared down index or, more controversially, a search box. When your local library can send the digital version of any book to your smartphone for free, and when purchasing a copy online is a couple of taps away, the availability constraint is no longer binding, even for Taleb’s skeptical antischolars. Except for rare and out of print books, annotated works, or other oddities, I’d argue that the value of a physical antilibrary no longer holds. Somewhat irrationally, this hasn’t stopped me from building one.
Reading is exponential by nature. Intertextuality means that for every book we read, we’re likely to find references to another N that we’ll want to add to our stack. I accumulate unread books, and I enjoy it. Browsing bookstores and getting lost between their shelves is always in my checklist when visiting new cities. I prefer reading on paper than on a screen, and I like the feeling I get when in conversation someone brings up a book that I know is sitting on my shelf. And yet, if I am honest, I have no idea why I return home so often with books to add to my collection.
There’s no rational justification behind a personal antilibrary, but there doesn’t need to be one. Ultimately, Taleb’s point was not that accumulating unread books is good, but that we can only thrive when we admit the limitation of our knowledge. An antilibrary is valuable because it reminds us of how much we don’t know. These days, nearly the whole output of the human enterprise is at our fingertips. That fact is more daunting than the rows of books of any physical antilibrary.
Photo: Lungarno degli Archibusieri, Florence, by me. Previously posted on Italia II - Firenze.
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