In Defense of My Antilibrary

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?

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14 Responses to In Defense of My Antilibrary

  1. MMA September 27, 2015 at 6:26 pm #

    Yes, I have an antilibrary. Like to believe everyone has one. But are you suggesting (or in your interpretation Nassim Taleb is) that over time the ratio of library (existing knowledge) to antilibrary (potential of unlearned knowledge) should decrease over time?

    That perhaps is counter-intuitive to conventional wisdom (same as the concept of unread books on shelf is.)

    • Jonathan Becher September 27, 2015 at 8:17 pm #

      Yes you understood my point: The more you learn, the less you really know.

  2. timoelliott September 27, 2015 at 10:04 pm #

    Just to quick note on big benefit of my e-book anti-library: it doesn’t look down on me menacingly from the shelf…

    • Jonathan Becher September 28, 2015 at 9:21 am #

      That is a BIG benefit. Although seeing the books everyday is a nice reminder to read…

  3. Aniko Hanke September 27, 2015 at 10:44 pm #

    On one hand you have just reminded me of a sore point… All those books looking at me right now and telling me “read me, read me”… On the other hand you have delivered the ultimate justification for that antilibrary which – theoretically – should make me feel better. However, if our library represents knowledge, Taleb’s theory implies that we remember all the content of books we have ever read. Do we? I certainly don’t. I feel that the sore point is getting even bigger… 🙂

  4. Diane Endo September 28, 2015 at 9:21 am #

    I absolutely have an antilibrary. Used to have a bit of guilt and shame about all the books I haven’t yet read. Thanks for changing that self-judgment.

  5. mryder01Malcolm Ryder September 28, 2015 at 10:47 am #

    Curating the anti-library is a sobering and intriguing necessity for someone like me who is nearly incapable of throwing stuff away! I have to get enough into an unread book to determine if it is going to stay or go when another “apparently” competing book comes along. The solution: my anti-library is circulating, cloudlike, across several U.S. states and greater London…

  6. Alex Romanovich January 15, 2020 at 6:01 pm #

    Great point. My ‘antilibrary’ is now digital – takes less physical space, but still costs money and ‘guilt funds’ 🙂

  7. Thomas Wegner January 17, 2020 at 11:01 pm #

    „The implication is the books are only for showing off.„ …even if it is showing off against yourself, it is true though! Thanks for these thoughts.

  8. Jeff Winter January 19, 2020 at 6:17 pm #

    Thank you for giving me the rational (after the fact) as to why I haven’t read all of my books. I feel more learned already.

    As for ebook vs traditional, I am electronic for all reading, except books. There is just something special about a flipping a page, “dog earring” a page, and well, filling that library (or antilibrary).

  9. Kevin Jens Cox January 20, 2020 at 6:44 am #

    I found my way to a similar solution. I had always felt it was something like “hygge” being surrounded by my books. After a couple of moves and having to pack and lift the boxes myself I decided it was killing my back —literally. So I made up a rule “if it wasn’t a book I had read more than once or a book I needed, it should be set free in the world for someone else to read”. This lead to a much smaller and manageable library.


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