The Antilibrary: On the Value of Unread Books

Umberto Eco by Tullio Pericoli

“Because learning does not consist only of knowing what we must or we can do, but also of knowing what we could do and perhaps should not do.”

[Umberto Eco]

The more we learn, the more we realize how much more we have not explored and understood. In the same way we have untapped potential, the books we haven't yet read represent our potential learning. This is a concept author Nicholas Nassim Taleb called an antilibrary, with reference to Umberto Eco's private library.

Eco was an Italian author and professor of semiotics* whose first novel, The Name of the Rose, catapulted him to international fame, selling more than 50 million copies and counting.

A prolific writer, his works spanned stories for children, pieces of literary criticism, academic texts on semiotics, studies of everything from medieval aesthetics to modern media. And everything in between — from The History of Beauty where he explores the nature, the meaning, and the very history of the idea of beauty in Western culture to the witty and irreverent How to Travel with a Salmon, a collection of essays. Here's his experience with travel food. One empathizes.

Writers are also prolific readers, and Eco was no exception. His idea was that we should be in relationship with books, subject what we read to inquiry. He was well-read in a number of disciplines, from literary to intellectual history, cultures, languages, and places — we find many of those references in his characters and stories.

As the owner of a vast private library, Umberto Eco used books as reference materials, dipping in and out of sources and stories that were part of his citadel of knowledge. It's a familiar feeling — having grown up surrounded by more than 5,000 cross-referenced books and two full encyclopedias of the arts, my father's passion for reading and learning was a valuable legacy for my own antilibrary.

In The Black Swan Nicholas Nassim Taleb says:

The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encylopedic, 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 read-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.

We tend to treat our knowledge as personal property to be protected and defended. 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. People don’t walk around with anti-resumes telling you what they have not studied or experienced (it’s the job of their competitors to do that), but it would be nice if they did.

Just as we need to stand library logic on its head, we will work on standing knowledge itself on its head. Note that the Black Swan comes from our misunderstanding of the likelihood of surprises, those unread books, because we take what we know a little too seriously. Let us call this an antischolar — someone who focuses on the unread books, and makes an attempt not to treat his knowledge as a treasure, or even a possession, or even a self-esteem enhancement device — a skeptical empiricist.”

Umberto Eco's private library:

Eco's thoughts on history were the thoughts of someone who had dedicated a great deal of time reading and thinking about it.


* For the curious among us, semiotics is the theory and study of signs and symbols, especially as elements of language or other systems of communication, and comprising semantics, syntactics, and pragmatics. 

[illustration by Tullio Pericoli]