Over the course of his life, Umberto Eco amassed a collection of some thirty thousand books. The twentieth-century Italian novelist, philosopher, and medievalist housed his personal library in a labyrinthine expanse of long, bookcase-lined hallways that led to and through dozens of rooms, each of which was filled with rows of heavily laden shelves. Nestled here and there were large tables stacked high with more books and piles of manuscript pages. It was the kind of place you could easily—and if you were a bibliophile, happily—get lost in.
While my own library is immeasurably more modest than Signor Eco’s, the two do have something in common: both include a number of books never read by their owner.
I used to feel guilty about all the unread books on my shelves, but that was before I read about the “antilibrary.” The term was coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a Lebanese-American essayist and scholar who studies randomness, probability, and uncertainty. In his book, The Black Swan, Taleb used Eco’s unique relationship with his books to illustrate the concept of the antilibrary—a collection of books that, because the owner has not yet read them, represent the unknown and a potential for learning.
Taleb described how Eco separated visitors to his library into two categories: those who wanted to know how many of the books he had read, and those who understood that the library was a valuable research tool.
“Read books are far less valuable than unread ones,” Taleb wrote. “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.”
I find this concept very reassuring, given my penchant for continuing to buy new books even though I already have dozens of still-unread ones sitting patiently on my shelves.
Too often, people think of a personal library as a kind of literary trophy case, showing off all the books the owner has read. While I enjoy being surrounded by my favorite books (and do, quite often, reread them), I now realize there is something to be said for balancing your collection with a healthy number of unread volumes.
Taleb’s idea of the antilibrary helps us refocus our attention from the known (books we have read) to the unknown (everything else). It gently reminds us that we should neither hoard knowledge nor lord it over other people in an attempt to ascend some imaginary ladder of hierarchy. By reminding us of everything we don’t know, the antilibrary restores our humility while simultaneously inspiring our curiosity.
Yes, once I felt remorseful about all my unread books, but not so much anymore. Now, I’m actually kind of excited. Each unread book feels like an adventure just waiting to begin. Each one holds untold possibilities. What lessons might be learned? What secrets might be revealed? What inspiration might strike? What tears might fall? What intrigue and drama might erupt off the page to sweep me off my feet and into another reality?
It is comforting to have so many reading options available at my fingertips, and having so many books in my to-be-read pile means that my home library feels a little like a bookstore in that it maintains a subtle yet powerfully alluring air of discovery.
And isn’t that perhaps the most appealing thing about a book—the possibility that it will help us discover something new about the world, about life, or about ourselves? How much nicer it is to imagine each unread book on our shelves not as an unfulfilled task or a neglected obligation, but as an as yet unwrapped gift that may give us the opportunity to unlock some new knowledge, attain a new insight, or capture a new experience? Yes, that’s much better. Let’s go with that.
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What’s in your antilibrary? Do you collect books on the writing craft, novels, poetry? How do you feel about having those unread tomes on your shelf? When do you dip into that reservoir of yet-to-be-consumed stories and wisdom?
Jamie Lee Wallace I am a freelance content writer, columnist, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts, and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. For more from me, check out the archives for the Saturday Edition and Sunday Shareworthy posts. Off the blog, please introduce yourself on Facebook, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
This post originally appeared as a column in the Ipswich Chronicle, and subsequently on the Live to Write – Write to Live blog.
Photo Credit: Dany_Sternfeld Flickr via Compfight cc
52 thoughts on “No, You can’t have too many books.”
What a wonderful blog post. I find so much comfort in unread books on my personal library bookshelves, because I love thinking about the words and stories inside the covers – what types of information and knowledge will I gain? What effects will the contents have on me? Will I read something at the right moment in time? At the wrong moment? I enjoy collecting poetry and short story anthologies (the former started because of the anthologies I had to purchase for English college courses), because my potential for growth (as a reader and human) is so much greater with a variety of stories and tales packed into one thick tome. This year for my reading challenge, I’ve tasked myself with reading all the unread books on my bookshelf (an extremely advantageous task, I admit), so I can weed out those that don’t bring joy to me. But as I’ve been savoring the process of reading the unread, I’m finding that the unread books on my shelves bring me a different kind of joy than those I’ve read – and you’ve explained why perfectly here. I’m very supportive of the antilibrary.
Thanks so much for your thoughts, Kelsey. I share your enthusiasm for pondering the unknown that lies between the covers of the unread book. It’s the sense of potential that I savor … the possibility of what might be. Which isn’t to say that I don’t also love the experience of actually reading the books on my shelf, but it’s nice to always have a few that are still waiting for me to crack them open. Which brings me to what might be the nicest thing about an antilibrary – you can always add to it, can’t you? 😉
Thank you! I have bookcases, crates and boxes full of unread books and reading your post whipped my guilt into place. A few months ago I had a bookcase collapse under the weight of the books it held. I have poetry, history, foreign language, science fiction, horror, romance and a plethora of text books on my shelves and in various crates and boxes…
I’m all about whipping guilt into its proper place when I’m able. Living in New England, I think I am overly prone to a sort of Yankee guilt that is rarely helpful. 😉
Sounds like you have a lovely collection of to-be-read books at hand. That’s wonderful! And – hey – being able to tell the story of a bookcase collapsing under the weight of said collection … I think that deserves some kind of reader/writer badge of honor!
Thanks for being here.
I’m glad to know I’m not the only one weighed down by the pragmatic, frugal Yankee-ism of New England life. If it makes you feel better, we have such a rich history of reading and authorship, that collecting books should never be a guilty activity. Awesome post BTW.
Thank you – for the compliment, and the perspective on our New England/Yankee reading/writing heritage. Good point that we need to acknowledge the GOOD parts of our literary history as well!
Thank you 🙂
I, too, have some unread books on my bookshelf, but not as much as I used to. Over the years, I became determined to get that “unread book-buying habit” under control. Mostly for financial reasons, thinking, If I don’t have time to read this book right now, then I don’t need to buy it. Books given to me or found at a tag sale for $1.00 were exceptions to the rule, of course. But I do like this idea of getting rid of the guilt–as if it’s some mortal sin to own books you haven’t read yet. They are a sort of gift waiting to be opened. There are worlds in there, just waiting to be discovered. Thanks for this interesting post!
Hello, Tina! It’s been a while. So nice to “see” you. 🙂
I LOVE to discover books at the library sales and flea markets in the area. I recently picked up a couple of older (not antique, but 80s) volumes on local herbs and the history of herbalism. I know I won’t read them any time soon, but I’m happier knowing they are on my shelf. No mortal sin here … just, as you put it, gifts waiting to be opened!
Excellent bit of writing, I could almost, had I the experience, liken it to sitting in the confessional and acting completely in sympathy with the confessor of sins you describe of having unread books yet still buying more. A cathartic read.
You realize, of course, that writing it was cathartic for me, too. 😉 I’m shedding the guilt and embracing my desire for more books. No need to hide behind closed doors any more! I’m addicted to my home library, and I don’t care who knows!
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Great post! I have a belief that books are insurance. And just like some people stockpile price club toilet paper or buy kibble in bulk, I buy books for just in case. Some I devour immediately, but others are what I consider mood books, to be read based on the time of year and my state of mind and the time. There are so many other things to worry about in life–having too many books should never be one of them!
OMG – I totally to that, too! Whenever the weather forecast includes a storm (snow, rain, wind – whatever), my first thought is, “Ack! Do I have enough reading material??” In the winter, when the Nor’easters are coming through and my friends and neighbors are stockpiling milk and bread, I’m making a beeline to the library to gather up a small hoard of books … just in case. 😉 Love it!
Thank you, i feel much better now about my unread books! I have always thought they will be there for me when my children leave the nest and i am old and retired and will have time to sit, feet up with a book in front of me.
I so relate to that! That’s one thing I tell myself whenever I buy another book I know I don’t have time to read.
I have that fantasy, too … of an empty nest lifestyle that’s filled with reading and writing and gardening. I wonder if anyone actually gets that. It’s something to aim for, anyway … and one more reason to buy that latest book. 😉
This post made me realize that I do in fact get the “warm fuzzies” from being surrounded by books in my office. Even the unread ones. While I’m trying to curb frivolous purchases, I’d love to add some “antiquarian” books to my shelves someday if I have the means.
Oooh! “Antiquarian” … what do you have in mind? We have an excellent flea market in my area called Todd Farm … my favorite finds there are ALWAYS old books. I’ve picked up a few pretty neat ones that I may or may not ever read, but which I enjoy having around just for the ambiance of their presence. I like to think about who owned them before me and how many hands they passed through before landing on my shelf. Books with their own life history are the best.
I’m always on the hunt for old horror, literary classics, or things that intersect those, like Mary Shelly’s ‘Frankenstein’. Southern New England (and the tri-state area in general) have a bunch of great little bookstores scattered around. In the summer I love going to the Cape, and Provincetown has a couple of really great ones. The aging book smell combined with the scent of the ocean is really relaxing.
I’ve lived on the north shore of Boston all my life, and – you won’t believe it, but … – I’ve never been to the Cape. Now, hearing from you that they have some great bookstores, I feel even more compelled to make the trek … though, I’ll probably wait for the off season. 😉
I feel a great release, relief and validation all at once having read this post, and everyone’s comments above! I am not alone. I am not guilty. I can be free to be happy now and enjoy my shelves of unread books, and validation to buy even more. Lovely post!
Absolutely!! You are among friends (and enablers) here. 😉
Reblogged this on Suburban Syntax and commented:
This post hit close to home for me, since I have been trying to exercise restraint buying new books while I whittle down my “To Be Read” pile. I’m happy to think this ‘antilibrary’ concept is what gives me inspiration as I sit among the bookcases in my writing room…that or maybe its just all the bright colors?
Reblogged this on Blogging about all things.
I have closets full of books that just took over I am getting them out knocking the dust off of them and start reading them thank you
Excellent. Enjoy the adventure!
I remember reading Nassim Taleb’s Black Swan. I actively make it a mission to have more and more unread books that read ones. I like the idea that, much like a large telescope seeing further into infinity, each of these books, mostly about scientific subjects, just glare menacingly back at me, constantly reminding me of my ignorance and limitations.
You’ve touched on what I think is an important and often overlooked aspect of the antilibrary – the way it reminds us of how little we actually know and, by doing so, gives us perspective. It’s not so much about making us feel small or inadequate as it is about inspiring a sense of awe and wonder … at least, that’s my take on it. 😉 Thanks for sharing!
This is one of the issue I grappled with when we downsized due to aging. It was thought that most of my books should be given away or donated BUT…….I still fell like you said many are still friends still waiting to be rediscovered and ‘others’ to be found. Constantly learning too is the secret to quality life. Nothing absolutely nothing compares in my humble opinion with the feel of a good book and the beauty of the written word. Imagination gives all the colour and movement that some folk believe is constantly necessary.
I also believe that constant learning is both the secret to a quality life, and – quite possibly – to staying young. 😉 And I cherish the fact that books have the ability to bring so much, as you said, “colour and movement” into our lives … right in the comfort of our own homes.
Unfortunately, I work in public housing advocacy and having too many books can be construed by the authorities as a fire risk and be deemed hazardous enough to warrant serious cleaning out. Usually there’s a ways around it, but yeah. I PERSONALLY think it’s okay to have 30,000 books, but some say otherwise.
Ahhh, yes. I can see where issues might arise in such situations, but I’m with you and stick to my guns. No such thing as too many books. 😉
“I’ve read every one of those books,” I use to brag to friends while we stood new my library.
Fast forward to 2018; unread books have accumulated on the dusty shelves. Now, after reading your post, I no longer feel guilty for not reading them- now, I’m excited to know that stories are yet to be revealed! Thanks for your insight!
That’s excellent. I love how our relationship with books (and our libraries!) can evolve over time. 🙂
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Hello, Godfrey, and welcome to the wonderful world of blogging. You can search our site’s archives for information – I’d start with the “Blogging” and “Marketing” categories (see drop-down menu in the right-hand sidebar). And here are a couple to get you started:
Wonderful post. It pushed my nostalgia buttons. We sold our house summer 2016 and had to purge the library so it fit into the apartment. We gave away to family, friends, libraries, and charities approximately 2,000 books, bound collections, and children’s books. I gave away anything I had already read and probably wouldn’t read again.
I thought it would be one of the hardest things I’d ever done, but it wasn’t. Friends and family were thrilled to get the volumes and many took bags full of books they couldn’t wait to read. The libraries and charities couldn’t have been more appreciative. I learned a valuable lesson. All those things you learn from books and all the hours of entertainment you get from reading – pay it forward and pass those books along. You’ll feel terrific.
We have pop-up libraries here in the form of tiny houses on top of poles. They are scattered all over the city. They are beautifully painted little mansions and filled with books. The 15 to 25 books inside are available to everyone and can be taken away at any time. When you take a book, it is such a wonderful gift, you naturally either return it or replace it. I now take books I’ve read and and add them to these open libraries. That way I don’t accumulate books anymore (I really don’t have the room) and I feel like they are going to a good home.
Wow! That’s a lot of books to re-home! I love the spirit of generosity in your efforts, and the tiny libraries are wonderful! I have seen many pictures online, but I haven’t come across any in real life yet. The idea of paying it forward is one that always makes me smile. I have taken a few books down to our local coffee shop, which has a very informal “library” consisting of a few books tucked on an end shelf near the ice cream freezers. I try to always bring books that are made for serial reading … books of quotes, super short stories, etc. I love thinking that someone may pick one of my offerings up at just the right moment. 🙂
Thanks for sharing your stories (and your books!).
All I can say is that Umberto Eco must have been able to afford a much bigger living space than I can! My tiny flat (apartment) is overflowing with books and I still have to make regular runs to the charity shop to get rid of some and make room for new ones.
I know! I can hardly imagine having so many books to care for. Here’s a video of Eco’s library. Kind of blows my mind: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jQYnz7Oqr20
Yesterday I visited a museum and they were selling used books. Paperbacks $.50, hardbacks, $2. Or stuff a box for just $10. I filled that box up with box with over a dozen books. Who knows if I’ll ever be able to read all those books, but it was exciting adding them to my growing collection. Plus it adds character to my humbled apartment.
Books are the BEST way to add character, color, texture, and general ambiance to ANY space. What a deal you found – that’s awesome! Hope you got some good finds & enjoy exploring your new haul!
I have so many books-must be getting to about 10,000 now-but interestingly, I have read nearly 90% of them. I have the habit of buying books even before I have completed the last lot. But I also purpose to read most of them. I have worked out how to read about 4 different books each day and making sure I complete reading all 4, about the same time-or days apart.
There are books I have bought and ‘regretted buying’ because they were not as interesting as I assumed.
Wow! That’s a lot of books and a lot of reading! I’m curious – reading such quantities of material, do you find you’re able to retain a lot of the information/stories/details you read?
I have my own personal library that I have taken years to accumulate. I’m still building it up. But I don’t believe an antilibrary is for me.
I am going to play Devil’s advocate for read books vs. undread books. Regarding Taleb’s quote that “read books are far less valuable than unread ones,” isn’t that a tad bit presumptuous? I’m not trying to be rude by asking that, not in the least. But might it be presumptuous to think that once a book has been read that everything has been discovered on the first reading and that it warrants no future readings? Books can be multilayered, with themes, subjects, or other thoughts we may have missed the first time around, the second time around, heck, maybe even the third time around. I have history books I have had to reread three times to gain more out of them. I’ll probably even read them a fourth time, maybe a fifth. I am currently rereading an astronomy book, and I am gaining so much more that I missed the first time around. And it’s not just nonfiction. I have gained so much more insight rereading my favorite fantasy novels and pieces of classic literature, themes and emotions and ways of looking at the world, that I missed the first time around.
So, no, I don’t believe that “read books are less valuable than unread ones.” The mind learns through reiteration. Just like many of us learn a new language by reiteration, many of us also learn what a book has to teach us using the same method. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t have unread books. But I hope we get to reading them. I would rather read all the books in my personal library and reread them, and learn a little from that knowledge than have unread books I never get to. Such seems like a waste of space.
I don’t entirely disagree with you, Jonathan. I also re-read many of my favorite books multiple times. Returning to their pages is like reuniting with an old friend; and, like an old friend, each meeting brings new discoveries. It is especially interesting to me to re-read books from my childhood because my perspective is so different now. The magic is still there, but it has been transformed by time into a different kind of spell.
That said, I do think I will always have unread books in my library, if for no other reason than I can’t seem to stop buying them and I just can’t read them fast enough to keep up with my purchasing habit. 😉 And I’m not bothered by that. In the same way I consider my old favorites to be old friends, I like having room on my shelves for new friends that I can look forward to meeting in the not-too-distant future. There’s always something to learn – from the old and the new.
I can understand wanting new friends, Jamie. And what better friends than books. That said, I hope my previous post didn’t come across as cantankerous. Such was not my intent. I only wanted to offer a different viewpoint, but I know that online it can be hard to read intent. Thanks so much for your thoughtful posts.
I did not take you to be cantankerous at all, Jonathan. I love when readers bring different perspectives – that’s what it’s all about! Thanks so much for not only being here, but also for taking the time to share such thoughtful insights. Really. 🙂