As you probably guessed from my previous post, I have a lot of books in my office I’ve never read. I do plan on reading them – eventually – but new books often arrive faster than I can read my existing ones. Occasionally, I give books away; but only those I have read and that I’m certain I will never look at again.

I’ve always been a little bothered when a visitor looks at the bookshelves in and around my office and asks, “Have you read all of these books?” The implication is the books are only for showing off. I usually explain that a good bookshelf should be filled with mostly unread books so you can constantly learn. Sometimes I even sarcastically ask back, “Have you listened to all of the music that you own?” Unfortunately, the analogy isn’t as useful as I would like.

Given this, I was excited to learn that the Italian novelist Umberto Eco wrote an essay about just this situation. In ‘How to Justify a Private Library’, Eco points out many people “consider a bookshelf as a mere storage for already-read books”. But this is backwards – there is no need to waste valuable space on what you already know; it is better suited for what you want to learn. Or as Eco wittily answers when asked about his bookshelf:

No, these are the ones I have to read by the end of the month. I keep the others in my office.

I learned about the Umberto Eco essay by way of the book ‘Black Swan’. In the book, Nassim Taleb claims that your personal library should contain as many books as your finances allow. He writes:

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.

To reinforce this point, he coins the term ‘antilibrary’ to describe a collection of unread books. If a library is a store of existing knowledge, an antilibrary represents the potential of unlearned knowledge.

The only downside to my antilibrary is that it takes up so much room. I could resort to collecting e-books but it wouldn’t be quite the same.

Do you have an antilibrary?

This blog was originally posted on Manage by Walking Around on September 27, 2015.

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