On Libraries of Unread Books

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb is one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read this year and follows on from his equally excellent Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets in that it challenges the way we interact with an increasingly complex world. If time permits, I will write a proper review and summary of some of his more salient points (and there are many) but, in the interim, I just wanted to post a passage from 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 will 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.

In other words, the majority of people see Umberto Eco’s books as a status symbol of sorts and make the assumption that all have been read. On the other hand, a minority of people realise that a library is simply a tool for discovering things and therefore regardless of what one has already acquired in knowledge (the read books), there remains much more to be learned (the unread books). Whereas the shelves of read books may lead a person to become conceited and sure of themselves, the unread books help to keep the person humble.


#1 JDsg on 05.21.07 at 11:39 am

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.

This describes me very well. I am the type that buys books at a far greater pace than I can read them (and I read very fast). The “menacing” feeling of unread books may be hyperbole, but only just (at least for me). I also tend to be a third type of person when discovering that someone has a decent library of their own: I’m the sort that will look through their book titles. Because I believe very strongly that the books in one’s library are a mirror to the personality of the reader, and so I look through the titles to see what type of person they are.

#2 Amir on 05.21.07 at 12:05 pm

Interestingly, this has given rise to a phenomena of vanity book buying in which people buy certain books in order to give the impression they are intelligent, sophisticated or the like. As the Guardian reported a while ago:

Books are the new snobbery, according to a survey today. Social competitiveness about which titles we read has become one of the new mass forces of the era and only middle-aged people are relatively free of it.

Driven partly by pressure from incessant literary prize shortlists, more than one in three consumers in London and the south-east admit having bought a book “solely to look intelligent”, the YouGov survey says.

#3 dezhen on 05.21.07 at 7:28 pm

Sounds like my kind of guy, except I am more high-tech… I have too many gb of unread PhD theses and so on and it keeps growing! :o /

#4 Club Troppo » Missing Link: YHBT. YHL. HAND. on 05.21.07 at 7:40 pm

[...] Peter Black discusses ten fabulous internetty things we no longer enjoy… thanks to lawyers, while Amir at Austrolabe tells when unread books may be of more use than read ones. [...]

#5 Mango on 05.21.07 at 10:12 pm

Spot on Amir.

I was fortunate enough to be brought up in a house where the walls of one particular room were lined with an ever expanding book collection. Like a secret once told, loses all its mystery, a book once read, loses its excitement, for that reason, my father prioritised the expanding of our library to the displeasure of our mother lol
However, I remember asking him once why he chose to interrupt all the volumes, sections of volumes would be placed on different shelves, so that the gold writing on their spines didn’t align, since they looked beautiful that way, especially the Arabic books. And his answer was to deter accusations of snobbery that many people envious of those who love books tend to throw at us.

It actually doesn’t make sense to have a stagnant library. To walk into a room filled with books you’ve already read is like walking into a room filled with people you already know – you’ll feel comfortable, safe, even good about yourself but you won’t feel any sense of personal progression if years go by and you’re not obtaining any new acquaintances/books.

Speaking of which, has anyone read ‘So Many Books’ by Gabriel Zaid?

#6 Wensleydale on 05.21.07 at 11:18 pm

“Even when reading is impossible, the presence of books acquired (by passionate devotion to them) produces such an ecstasy that the buying of more books than one can peradventure read is nothing less than the soul reaching towards infinity … we cherish books even if unread, their mere presence exudes comfort, their ready access, reassurance.”

A.E. Newton

#7 Fatima on 05.22.07 at 3:51 am

Nearly everyone who walks into our study looks at the bookshelves which are filled from floor to ceiling and asks my husband ‘Wow. Have you read all of these?’. I think it would take 20 years to get through them all (they are all in Arabic and generally heavy reading).

The only people who don’t react that way are other students of knowledge who themselves are in the quest of filling up their libraries.

I grew up in a house full of books (all types not just religious ones) and I think that helped me in my love of books. I remember going out to my dad’s study and looking through books to see if there was anything I want to read. It was like a treasure trove. To this day some of the books that I clearly remember are ones that I read when I was in my teens in my dad’s library.

#8 JDsg on 05.22.07 at 9:40 am

Mango wrote: “Like a secret once told, loses all its mystery, a book once read, loses its excitement, for that reason…”

Never. No offense, but that type of attitude defeats the whole purpose of building a personal library. If a book “loses” its excitement after a single reading, one would merely work their way through a public library instead of buying their own books. Books in a personal library should (ideally) be read over and over again, where the “excitement” and joy of re-reading can be re-experienced. OK, so you know how the story will turn out (assuming a novel). So what? There are not other aspects of the writer’s craft to examine and admire? Having a number of books that are unread in one’s personal library is the mark of a serious reader, but they by themselves do not constitute a personal library; it is merely a collection of books. And a personal library filled with books once read is a waste of money; far better to go to the public library then. No, the true personal library is filled with books read again and again, giving the owner value, not only for his or her money spent but also on the knowledge refreshed in his or her mind.

“Speaking of which, has anyone read ‘So Many Books’ by Gabriel Zaid?”

Haven’t read the book, but one of my sisters once sent me a t-shirt that read “So many books, so little time.” I swear, virtually every time I wore that t-shirt, at least one person would stop me on the street to share their commiseration about how they too didn’t have enough time to read all the books they wanted to read.

#9 Mango on 05.22.07 at 10:24 am

JDsg -

I had a feeling this particular comment would be misunderstood and that is a failing on my part for using such a clumsy expression.

I agree with what you are saying, my point is a library filled with read books is not as enticing as a library filled with unread books, surely, you share the same anticipation as I, of a new book?

I am the first to admit to the pleasure of rereading books; they’re like meeting up with old friends, or comfort food, as someone once affectionately said. I actually find it easier to reread a loved book than read a new one because the latter runs the risk of disappointment while the former will never fail me.

lol @ T-shirt. So true!

As Zaid says in his book:

“And maybe the measure of our reading should therefore be, not the number of books we’ve read, but the state in which they leave us.”

#10 Chapomatic on 05.24.07 at 1:09 pm

[...] Okay, this guy knows two recurring themes this month: Taleb and the Shelf of Shame. [...]

#11 Amal on 06.15.07 at 9:54 am

The Economist has an interesting review of Taleb’s book, The Black Swan here:


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