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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