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.