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The Antilibrary: Unread Books Are The Most Important

If you had visited the home of the Italian philosopher Umberto Eco, before his death in 2016, you would have been blown away by the sheer number of books in his possession.

Eco had over 30,000 books in his apartment in Milan and another 20,000 in a vacation house near Urbino. 50,000 books is a lot. The vast majority of people will never read anywhere near that figure in their lifetime.

Indeed, one of the things that annoyed Eco the most when people saw his vast personal library for the first time was their reaction. They would often exclaim, “What a lot of books! Have you read them all?

While this may sound like a logical question to ask a man with a huge collection of books, on deeper introspection it is the wrong question.

In a way, the question is whether the mountain of books is merely a tool for showing off. A way of saying to everyone who enters the apartment, look how intellectual and learned I am.

That is missing the point spectacularly.

Eco did not have all these books just for show, they were there to fulfil his intellectual curiosity. To plug gaps in his knowledge.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in The Black Swan, refers to this as an ‘antilibrary.’ He states that one’s library should contain as many books as you haven’t read as those as you have. Money permitting of course.

The idea of the antilibrary is simple. If you read more books, the perimeter of your knowledge will increase. However, there is a secondary factor at play. By reading more, you realise how little you know, thus necessitating the need to read more to fill those gaps.

To gain true knowledge and stay on a path of curiosity in life, it’s important to acknowledge Socrates’ old maxim:

“I know that I know nothing.”

The Antilibrary

Reading is one of the best ways to attain knowledge. Podcasts are becoming increasingly popular, but they are lacking in one key area. The medium has only been around for a decade at best.

Whereas, books have been around for much longer. The ability to read a book written by someone 2,000 years ago is one of the most useful tools you can have to improve your knowledge.

Despite the progress we have made over that time, many of the problems we face today were relevant back then too. Anxiety, the trappings of success and greed, were issues faced by the ancients and us today.

Knowing this keeps you grounded. It makes you realise that your problems are not unique. They have afflicted us for millennia.

The Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote about wasting your life in his classic essay On The Shortness of Life, during the height of the Roman Empire. Today, his writing and the problems remain relevant.

The sheer number of books that have ever been published is well into the millions. A lot of those will not be worth reading. However, even by disregarding those books, there will still be hundreds of thousands of books that will have a positive influence on your life.

Unless you dedicate your entire life to reading those books, you are very unlikely to read anywhere near that number of books. It may seem silly then, to own all these books without ever reading them, but that is missing the point.

The books serve as a constant reminder of all the things that you don’t know. The purpose of a large collection of books should not be to stroke your ego, rather it should be to keep you intellectually curious and hungry.

Looking at the books that you have yet to read should light a fire inside you to keep learning. It serves as an exercise in intellectual humility and will stop you from getting ahead of yourself.

We should treat knowledge as a muscle that needs to be constantly massaged and trained, otherwise, it will wither away and regress. As Lincoln Steffens stated:

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

Learning is for life

Learning should be a lifelong pursuit. It does not begin and end in school. In a world that is changing at a rapid rate, it’s important to make learning a fundamental part of your life.

Setting up an ‘antilibrary’ is one of the best ways to do this. No one has all the answers in life and no one is going to be able to read all the books in the world to provide that knowledge.

A simple way of explaining this is to look at the universe. There is much we know about the workings of the universe. We know that the planets orbiting the sun are held in place by a force called gravity.

We know that the universe is expanding and that the stars we see in the night sky are how they appeared millions of years due to how long it takes light to travel.

However, there is much more that we don’t know. Scientists estimate that we only know what four per cent of the universe is comprised of. The other ninety-six per cent is based upon educated guesses regarding dark matter and energy.

If we know so little about the universe we inhabit, it stands to reason that the same applies to life. Knowledge is not personal property, it is not a castle that needs to be defended, rather it is a house that needs continual renovation, a painting in progress, it is something we need to nurture and develop not parade around.

Surrounding yourself with books that you may or may not read sounds like a foolish investment on the surface, but when you scratch away at it, the idea makes sense.

The books that you have read are less useful than the ones you haven’t. Unless you intend to return to them for reference or further reading, the books you haven’t read offer more value.

They are a reminder that knowledge is not fixed, it is malleable and needs constant nourishment. They serve to keep us grounded and humble and stop us from getting ahead of ourselves and believing that we know it all when we don’t.

We should not view this as a failure, we should view it as a source of inspiration and future learning. Much like Eco, we should see this as a reminder that there is much to know and that we don’t know what we don’t know.