11 DECEMBER 2022


Well worn tools, books that age with grace over time and shelves that inspire humility

The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopaedic, 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 as what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates and the currently tight real-estate market allow you to put there.”

- Nassim Taleb in ‘The Black Swan’

‘The Black Swan’ has been full of counterintuitive ideas, and the concept of the ‘antilibrary’ comes from it.

A hypothetical example. Let us enter the house of a friend who we know to be successful and financially wealthy. In such a context, it would not be surprising at all for us to find evidence of books, or even floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled to the brim with spines. The instinctive reaction that plays out in my own mind would be along the former category that Taleb had illustrated, a reaction born out of awe and inspiration — ‘wow, look at how many books so-and-so has read! How impressive!’

Taleb’s proposal of an ‘antilibrary’ actually grounds this sense of awe into something that is more substantive and less superficial.

Why is that? Well, let us dig a little deeper.

Books can be viewed, ultimately, as tools for learning. Just like a full garage packed to the brim with well used tools and equipment, endless rows of bookshelves gives a sense that the owner has put in the necessary work of making use of the latent potential towards some end. This plays to the hand of a default sense of awe upon witnessing the seemingly endless lists of books that another person has taken into their possession — the books becoming a sort of physical proxy of knowledge gained.

It strikes me that there is some sort of differentiation, though, between books and physical tools. Unlike the aesthetic wear and tear that is visible on tools, it is harder to quantify what one has absorbed and understood from having an extensive collection of books, aside from the raw intimidation of neatly organised shelves on visitors.

The more that books are read, the more likely it is for their latent potential to be converted into something more useful — live knowledge in one’s mind being far more valuable than dead information on pieces of paper. I suppose screwdrivers are also ‘more useful’ the more they are used but there is an indeterminate cliff within books, though, which happens either at the physical end of a book or whenever one mentally disengages with the material — which could very well be within the first few pages. Books being only as useful as the subjective value they contain, something like that.

When a screwdriver becomes so worn out that it becomes impossible to exert any meaningful torque, it makes little sense to continue to keep a tool in such condition inside one’s toolbox — but for books, it seems to be different. There is a temporal quality to words written on pieces of paper. Great writing might not allure you today at this particular moment in your life but it very well might thrill you in a decade or two.

So, how does one let go of the books that one has read? There lies the very difficult task of arriving at a firm conclusion of, ‘I have understood all there is to know.’

The fact that the vast majority of books go unread or, if they are particularly fortunate, get read once and only once, does not make this any easier.

Then what happens? The books that are unread, partially read, read once, re-read multiple times over are all collectively thrown together into a stack, physical or digital, as a perpetually compounding archive of books that is unlikely to ever face any form of garbage collection.

“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.”

Each individual book serves as rabbit holes in and of themselves. The greatest books, in my mind, do not explicitly provide answers but instead pose deep questions. It seems counter-productive to not receive explicit answers immediately, but there is a power in facing quality questions. They act as hooks for a level of introspection that makes it possible for whatever solution that ultimately appears to be completely owned and articulated by one’s soul.

And perhaps, this is one way to comprehend the well worn cliche of, “the more you know, the more you realise how little you actually know.” The questions accumulate at a far greater rate than the answers that manifest themselves.

Then, maybe all books — read, unread, partially read — can all serve as evidence of all that is yet to be known.

Maybe it is perspective, one’s intent, that separates whether one views floor-to-ceiling bookcases with arrogance or with humility.

The former voice would think, “these are all the books that I have conquered, understood and now possess.”

The latter would think, “I am only a custodian, a mere visitor, a tourist, of all the untapped understanding within these books, and the questions I ask ultimately lead to the flourishing of even greater questions and on and on and on.”

The antilibrary pays homage to all that is not known while the library takes pride for what it concludes to be definitively ‘known’.

What can be guaranteed is that the world contains far more than any single mind can maintain an awareness of, let alone reasonably comprehend.

“Everyone holds his fortune in his own hands, like a sculptor the raw material he will fashion into a figure. But it’s the same with that type of artistic activity as with all others: we are merely born with the capability to do it.

The skill to mould the material into what we want must be learned and attentively cultivated.”

- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe