This Will Be Hard

My Antilibrary

There are books spread all around my house, and while most are in one room, I can’t properly call it a library. I own books about many subjects, and I’ve lost interest in some of the topics. I have also returned to subjects I thought I didn’t care about anymore.

I have read many of my books, but probably not most, and the unread quantity fills me with joy. Nassim Taleb explains this emotion quite nicely in The Black Swan:

The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates 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 that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. 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 allow you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.

We tend to treat our knowledge as personal property to be protected and defended. It is an ornament that allows us to rise in the pecking order. So this tendency to offend Eco’s library sensibility by focusing on the known is a human bias that extends to our mental operations. People don’t walk around with anti-résumés telling you what they have not studied or experienced (it’s the job of their competitors to do that), but it would be nice if they did. Just as we need to stand library logic on its head, we will work on standing knowledge itself on its head. Note that the Black Swan comes from our misunderstanding of the likelihood of surprises, those unread books, because we take what we know a little too seriously.

I love not knowing much. Not knowing enough. There is so much wonder in learning the next thing. In not even knowing what the next thing’s subject will be.

So many surprises await me on my bookshelves. Many more surprises are still in book warehouses. Even more are still in the authors' minds.

This is what keeps me off social media.