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Umberto Eco’s Anti-Library

Posted on Sunday, Jan 13th 2008

This is an excerpt from Taleb’s Black Swan, that I thought my readers should think about.

“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.”

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New year resolutions, sort of « :-E Sunday, January 13, 2008 at 2:54 PM PT

What a truly super post! I think his “new dark ages”, the “new medieval” is also a very interesting concept for the “knowledge worker”. And the post also resonates with a techrunch piece today about that is somehow pitched into a “negative space” that would not exist without the incentive offered.

Paul Sweeney Wednesday, January 23, 2008 at 8:35 AM PT


It may be easier to understand what you wrote here if you explained a bit. It sounds like gobbledigook to me 🙂


Sramana Mitra Wednesday, January 23, 2008 at 11:14 AM PT

Thanks for the excerpt! I’m still wrapping my head around the idea. I’m like you: My anti-library is growing, and it *does* invoke a bit of unease – all that work to do! But I look at my purchases from the right (I believe) perspective: They’re an investment, a resource for when the time comes for needing that knowledge. I know I can’t know it all (which is a strength), and these books represent an act of faith – that my future self will need them some day. It’s a kind of preparation for the unknown, I suppose…

Great stuff!

Matthew Cornell Monday, April 6, 2009 at 8:35 AM PT