The Virtue of Owning Books You Haven’t Read: Why Umberto Eco Kept an “Antilibrary”

When con­sid­er­ing whether to buy yet anoth­er book, you might well ask your­self when you’ll get around to read­ing it. But per­haps there are oth­er, even more impor­tant con­sid­er­a­tions, such as the intel­lec­tu­al val­ue of the book in its still-unread state. In our per­son­al libraries we all keep at least a few favorites, vol­umes to which we turn again and again. But what would be the use of a book col­lec­tion con­sist­ing entire­ly of books we’ve already read? This is the ques­tion put to us by the read­ing (or at least acquir­ing) life of no less a man of let­ters than Umber­to Eco, seen in the video above walk­ing through his per­son­al library of 30,000 books — a fair few of which, we can safe­ly assume, he nev­er got through.

As Nas­sim Taleb tells it, Eco sep­a­rat­ed his 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 is that a pri­vate library is not an ego-boost­ing appendages but a research tool.”

One’s library should there­fore con­tain not just what one knows, but much more of what one does­n’t yet know. “Indeed, the more you know, the larg­er the rows of unread books. Let us call this col­lec­tion of unread books an antili­brary.” This pas­sage comes from Tale­b’s The Black Swan, a book all about the human ten­den­cy — defied by Eco — to over­val­ue the known and under­val­ue the unknown.

“The antilibrary’s val­ue stems from how it chal­lenges our self-esti­ma­tion by pro­vid­ing a con­stant, nig­gling reminder of all we don’t know,” writes Big Think’s Kevin Dick­in­son. “The titles lin­ing my own home remind me that I know lit­tle to noth­ing about cryp­tog­ra­phy, the evo­lu­tion of feath­ers, Ital­ian folk­lore, illic­it drug use in the Third Reich, and what­ev­er ento­mophagy is.” The New York Times’ Kevin Mims con­nects Tale­b’s con­cept of the antili­brary to the Japan­ese con­cept of tsun­doku, pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture, which cap­tures the way books tend to pile up unread in our homes. There’s noth­ing inher­ent­ly wrong with that, as long as we’ve stocked those piles with valu­able knowl­edge — and more of it than we can ever use.

via Big Think

Relat­ed con­tent:

“Tsun­doku,” the Japan­ese Word for the New Books That Pile Up on Our Shelves, Should Enter the Eng­lish Lan­guage

Watch Umber­to Eco Walk Through His Immense Pri­vate Library: It Goes On, and On, and On!

Umber­to Eco’s 36 Rules for Writ­ing Well (in Eng­lish or Ital­ian)

Umber­to Eco Explains the Poet­ic Pow­er of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts

Jorge Luis Borges Selects 74 Books for Your Per­son­al Library

How to Read Many More Books in a Year: Watch a Short Doc­u­men­tary Fea­tur­ing Some of the World’s Most Beau­ti­ful Book­stores

“Tsun­doku,” the Japan­ese Word for the New Books That Pile Up on Our Shelves, Should Enter the Eng­lish Lan­guage

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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