I first encountered Umberto Eco’s idea of the Antilibrary when reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan in high school in 2007. The idea made immediate sense to me, as I presume it would to anyone having experienced the overwhelming feeling of seeing your collection of books piling up faster than you are able to read them.
Maria Popova writes on why unread books are more important than read books here (which does in fact seem to be largely lifted from this post in Farnam Street), and quoting from The Black Swan:
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 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.
Seen this way the piles of unread books stop being a source of bad conscience and becomes (hopefully) a source for intellectual humility.
The narrow-minded may still ask what is the point of accumulating loads of unread books, more than you will ever have the chance to read? Well, like the arched ceilings of an awe-inspiring cathedral makes man feel small in the company of God, the piles of unread books remind you how little you know. Rather than an ego-boosting appendage the value of a library is on the contrary as a tool to check your ego and counter your hubris. To be what Taleb labels an Antischolar – a skeptical empiricist.
Or, in Donald Rumsfeld’s phraseology, a library of unread books may not add to your known knowns, but at the very least it can perhaps turn some of your unknown unknowns into known unknowns – which in itself can be enough to reduce the risk of screw-ups by orders of magnitude.
It is (often) the unknown unknowns – the black swans – that kill us. If only Rumsfeld had applied his own methodology more carefully in planning for the war in Iraq – where the known known (WMDs) turned out to be false, whereas it was the unknown unknowns (e.g. the failure to foresee the rise of anti-American sectarian violence or the creation of ISIS) that cluster****ed the mission.
So back to the name of this blog. It was not before a decade after first learning of the antilibrary that I started delving deeper into Eco’s oeuvre – my interest triggered (sadly) by his death. I read dozens of his obituaries and old interviews from the archives, and ordered several of his books and collections of essays.
I first read his most famous work, The Name of the Rose, (or should it be The Name of Rome), which plot is of course centred around a library, (wittily inspired, as always with Eco, by Jorge Luis Borges’ paradoxical Library of Babel). But despite Aristotle’s book on Comedy the library in The Name of the Rose is a dark place, where knowledge is guarded from antischolars by secretive, possessive munks precisely the opposite of an antilibrary – but not unlike modern universities where students are given a set of books containing The Truth and are not encouraged to read much else, just as in medieval monasteries.
I liked the idea of the antilibrary so much that I went for it for this blog, which was originally intended mainly for book reviews. I first registered it under the Norwegian name Antibiblioteket, and wrote the initial reviews in Norwegian. Since I have later emigrated, (my simplest way of shorting that country’s future) I have added the English domain Antilibrary, and will henceforth probably write more in English than in Norwegian. Although I intend to write here about books I will be reading, the blog will not be confined to book reviews, but will attack a wider array of issues in the spirit of an antischolar.