Nicholas Nassim Taleb opens Black Swan, his book on the impact of the highly improbable, with the story of Umberto Eco’s Antilibrary:
The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, 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 of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allow 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.”
The parallel between Umberto Eco’s library and the Black Swan — a high impact yet lowly predictable event — is this: we underestimate the importance of what we don’t know. By curating an antilibrary, you create an ever-present reminder of all that you do not know, and ensure you have new content that stretches your knowledge on hand.
I’ve long had a habit of buying books faster than I can read them. At one time this was a source of frustration and shame — if I’ve invested in this book, surely I should have read it by now! Treating my collection as an antilibrary helps manage this guilt, and so much more. Each book I have bought has a story — how I encountered it, what attracted me to it, what I hope to learn from it. Even without having read many of the books in my collection, I am able to assemble a collection of books relevant to the theme I am researching. Every book I have bought has compelled me to read it; the collection keeps me curious and hungry to learn more. It also keeps me humble — for every bit of new knowledge I encounter, there is another tome of as yet unknown wisdom.
Housing this sprawling collection is much like maintaining a garden. It’s a balance of creating new garden beds, weeding out unwanted visitors, regularly tilling the soil and admiring the abundance. I somehow manage to consistently maintain more books than shelf space. As a result there are often books piled on desks, snuck into the couch, and towering beside the bed.
Curating your own antilibrary
There’s no hard and fast rules about how to maintain your antilibrary, but these are some principles I find useful:
- Add at the edge. Include books that build on your existing knowledge and take it to new places — whether that be going deeper into a topic, or learning about an adjacent subject. A strong antilibrary offers both depth and breadth.
- Follow the direction of maximal interestingness. Most books added to my antilibrary are those I’ve come across in other reading, viewing, tweeting, or conversation. If someone mentions a text related to something I’m already finding interesting, it goes onto my wishlist (more on this later). References and recommendations are great sources of further reading.
- Buy physical. Despite having purchased a lot of e-books, if I don’t read them immediately I forget they exist and almost never come back to them (sadly this also applies to audio books). Your experience may differ, so you do you — but if you are similarly challenged with object permanence, physical is the way to go.
- Maintain a wishlist. It’s always the case that when you have enough surplus cash to splurge on books that you don’t have time to read them, and vice versa. My eyes are also bigger than my wallet. Solution? Create a wishlist — this acts as a secondary antilibrary that books get added to with enthusiasm, and I purchase from semi-regularly.
- Go to the library. My antilibrary is bolstered by regular browsing in my local library, where I borrow books I am curious about but have not yet purchased. Public libraries are amazing places to encounter new books and an accessible way to create the antilibrary effect, whatever your budget.
- It doesn’t have to be factual. As a futurist, I’m a strong believer that speculative stories can have a profound impact on our lives and choices. There is always room in my antilibrary for works of fiction that stretch my thinking.
Whatever the size of your antilibrary, it is a powerful reminder that your knowledge is limited, imperfect, and will forever be this way. It helps us stay eager to learn, stay open to surprise, and consider what lies beyond your existing knowledge.