Exercise Your Brain With An Antilibrary Of Unread Books And Why Umberto Eco Kept One

Why owning unread books is good for you

“Knowledge sets us free, art sets us free. A great library is freedom”
– Ursula K. Le Guin




Ever buy a book and not read it? The Japanese have a word for amassing books and leaving them unread. It’s tsundoku (積ん読), which literally means reading pile (積ん読).

It’s no bad thing to have unfamiliar things you do not know within reach. Like happening upon a stranger’s playlist, you experience the unfamiliar and are enriched by it. And what better way to discover new ideas and expressions than by keeping books nearby. It’s the antithesis of the zealot who reads one book, finds they agree with it entirely and reads no others.

The Italian writer, literary critic, semiotician and philosopher Umberto Eco (1932 – 2016) kept a personal library of more than 30,000 books. He didn’t read them all cover to cover. He never planned to.

Writer Nassim Taleb says that Eco separated his visitors into those who saw his library and uttered, “’Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have. How many of these books have you read?'” * and the smaller number who realised that a private library is not for show, but for research.

Each books is rich with potential and a reminder of what you do not yet know. “The sight of so many books never failed to excite me, rows and rows of books with multicolored spines,” said the singer Patti Smith on her joy of libraries.

This is joy in recognising what you don’t know know but could know later. Taleb called it the ‘antilibrary’, coining the term in his book The Black Swan:

“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 allows 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.”

Those unread books challenge us, daring us to sty curious and revaluate what we think we know.

“We concentrate on things we already know and time and time again fail to take into consideration what we don’t know. We are, therefore, unable to truly estimate opportunities, too vulnerable to the impulse to simplify, narrate, and categorize, and not open enough to rewarding those who can imagine the ‘impossible’.”

The antilibrary introduces something random and exciting to our learning and our homes.

* Eco’s response to his visitors who asked that question was: “No, these are the ones I have to read by the end of the month. I keep the others in my office.”


via Big Think

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