Discover more from MILLER’S BOOK REVIEW 📚
Forget Your Antilibrary, Try Bacon Instead
Nassim Nicholas Taleb coined the term. Lifestyle bloggers made it a thing. But Francis Bacon had a better idea.
In his 2007 book The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb pointed to the 30,000 books owned by writer Umberto Eco and offered the term antilibrary to describe all the unread volumes. It’s a champagne cork of a word. After the first pop it plays no significant role in the book; it doesn’t even garner a place in the index. But the term caught on.
While little use of antilibrary appears immediately after publication, Google now serves up a landslide of results. Mentions began mounting in the teens. In 2013 Farnam Street posted on the concept. The Marginalian (then known as Brain Pickings) did so in 2015, as did the Guardian. Then came scores more. Eventually, even home-decor sites like Apartment Therapy and House Beautiful started explaining why we all need antilibraries.
But do we?
Eco, who died in 2016, had two kind of visitors to his library, says Taleb. First, there were those who assumed the library’s value was in how many volumes he'd read so far. Second, there were “a very small minority” who recognized its true worth consisted in revealing what Eco did not yet know.
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.
Provocative, and true so far as it goes. But also misleading. Knowledge pushes back the boundaries of our ignorance; meanwhile, learning reveals more of what we have yet to discover. Unread books not only remind us we have more to learn, but also provide the means to do so.
Yet we call most any collection of books—read or unread—a library. There’s no need to modify the word to make the point. Any decent private library will include many unread books. The idea that library equates to read books and antilibrary to those unread is nonsense; we don’t label yesterday’s dinner chicken and tomorrow’s antichicken.
It’s also nonsense to assign value based on whether a book has been read. I wonder: Do Taleb’s books suddenly become less valuable once read? Do they retain more value if we never open them? It’s a bass-ackward way of thinking about books and their use.
Books are not merely read or unread; they are also partially read, re-read, thoroughly scanned, quickly skimmed, meditated upon, and more. As Francis Bacon explains in his Essays,
Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.
This is far closer then mark than simply ascribing heightened value to books whose contents remain out of reach. (By the way, I’ve only read about half of Bacon’s Essays. Are the rest antiessays?)
Taleb has much to teach us on the limits of knowledge. His 2005 book, Fooled by Randomness, remains a favorite of mine. But he offers considerably less when it comes to conceiving and establishing a home library.
A working library is a thing in constant motion, and our interaction with its contents are as varied as our moods, interests, and needs. To divide a library into read and unread, and then ascribe value based on that distinction, perhaps sounds clever. But it misrepresents what a library is for and how it’s used.
My guess is Taleb’s own library is thoroughly Baconian, as are all working libraries, including Eco’s, including mine and probably yours—full of books in all stages of being read (and not).
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this post, please hit the ❤️ below and share it with your friends.
Not a subscriber? Take a moment and sign up. It’s free for now, and I’ll send you my top-fifteen quotes about books and reading. Thanks again!