As a kid I loved buying books during the yearly book fair in the city where I grew up. I was not a good judge of my aptitude so I mostly ended up buying books that were beyond me. Naturally a lot of them remained piled up in my home gathering dust. They still do. My mother had her own pile of literary collection. Too many books for a small house.
Once in a while somebody would mention about the unread books. It would be some distant uncle during his yearly visit, or one of my own friends. “How many of them have you read?”
It was a logical question. It made me wonder if I had been wasting my parents’ money buying all these books and leaving them unread.
Turns out I wasn’t the only one being asked this question. The late Italian writer Umberto Eco had a personal collection of thirty thousand books in his private library. Most of the people who visited him reacted with, “What a library you have! How many of these books have you read?” Only a very small minority understood that a library is not meant to show off the number of books one has read. A library is a research tool where read books are far less valuable than unread ones. In other words, the knowledge you have gained is less valuable than what you don’t know.
Does it mean that we should buy books only not to read them because reading would make them less valuable? Can this idea be used as an excuse to be a collector of books, but not a reader? Not exactly!
I’ll agree that this isn’t the most obvious and intuitive concept to grasp. On top of that, this can be easily misinterpreted. Yet this is precisely how Nassim Nicholas Taleb starts The Black Swan—by introducing us to the concept of an antilibrary.
“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.”
— Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan
An antilibrary—the unread books in our collection—represents what we don’t know. It’s a reminder of our ignorance. It’s a delineation of the fact that even if we pursue knowledge for the next 100 years, we won’t be able to know everything there is to know. In fact, not even a tiny fraction of it.
The purpose is not to depress us, but to remind us to be humble about our own knowledge. So that we don’t become so cocksure about everything that it prevents us from learning, from seeing, and from questioning things. Especially our own conjectures.
When you have just started reading books, you are absolutely sure of your ignorance. Therefore you value the unread books. You have certain notions and assumptions that you want to verify. The problem starts when you’ve read a good deal. You start becoming too sure, too confident, too prudent. As Taleb writes, this is exactly what leads to Black Swan events.
It is our knowledge—the things we are sure of—that makes the world go wrong and keeps us from seeing and learning.
— Lincoln Steffens (1866 – 1936), Investigative Journalist
Our knowledge is incomplete, imperfect, and infinitesimal in absolute terms. The antilibrary represents the unknowledge—the things we don’t know. Unknowledge is the only antidote to our overconfidence from knowledge.
A scholar is someone who knows many things. An antischolar is somebody who is humbly aware that they don’t know everything. They are “someone who focuses on the unread books, and makes an attempt not to treat his knowledge as a treasure, or even a possession, or even a self-esteem enhancement device.” They question things. They are skeptical empiricists who know that what they don’t know is more valuable than what they know.
A good library is filled with mostly unread books. That’s the point. The unread books are a tool for us to question our knowledge, our assumptions, and our worldview. “You’ll never read all of them,” many people say when they look at my unread collection. With time I’ll go on adding more unread books, and my probability of reading all of them will further decrease. They are right. I won’t be able to read all of them, and that’s exactly how it works.
I’m aware of the limits of my knowledge. My library of unread books is a constant reminder. My limited knowledge can only take me so far. Like all of us, I know that unknowledge—what I don’t know—affects me far more than my knowledge. As Taleb writes, “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.”