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.