August 9th is National Book Lovers Day in the United States. I’ve been wanting to write a piece on books – specifically buying too many books, but then I came across an idea that maybe too many is not too many. Here are some ideas to make you feel better about having stacks of unread or partially read books – or maybe it will just be an excuse to buy more books!
A 2018 article in Big Think entitled, “The value of owning more books than you can read,” by Kevin Dickinson, has some interesting ideas around unread books. Dickinson summarizes a view by statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb, of unread books as an “antilibrary.” Taleb wrote about the anti-library in his book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Taleb discusses author Umberto Eco’s library of over 30,000 books. Dickinson writes,
“Eco’s library wasn’t voluminous because he had read so much; it was voluminous because he desired to read so much more.”
This idea of the benefit of the “anti-library” and unread books shows us something about the benefit not of knowing, but of wanting to know. A small, tidy library may be a sign of an ordered mind and tidy life, or it may be a sign of a lack of curiosity about the world and the world of ideas. Dickinson quotes Taleb:
“Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. [Your] 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.”
Dickinson quotes Taleb, “We tend to treat our knowledge as personal property to be protected and defended.” And further, “It is an ornament that allows us to rise in the pecking order. So this tendency to offend Eco’s library sensibility by focusing on the known is a human bias that extends to our mental operations.” Dickinson cites Jessica Stillman’s concept of “intellectual humility,” as focusing on how much we do not know, instead of how much we do know.
Dickinson then writes about the Japanese word and concept, tsundoku, referring to stacks of unread books. He says its etymology comes from “tsunde-oku (letting things pile up) and dukosho(reading books).”
Dickinson’s article, “The value of owning more books than you can read,” is a good read with a number of interesting ideas around the value of books beyond knowing the actual knowledge found in the books. I have not summarized the whole article, I’ll leave you to it if you are interested, or perhaps you would rather just go out and buy Taleb’s book and maybe read it or maybe not!
I thought today, National Book Lovers Day was a good day to write about this thought-provoking concept of the anti-library of unread books which teaches us about the value of having things we have not mastered, always having the next book (or three, or forty) you want to read, and it says something about the value of focusing on what you desire more than on what you have acquired.
Oh, and one last thing, I must have done this subconsciously, but I just realized I’m wearing the appropriate shirt today for National Book Lovers Day!