On Owning Books

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

I moved to a new city for a job after earning my undergraduate degree. I rented a small apartment in a house that had been converted to a triplex. I liked a lot of things about that apartment: the wood stove, the friendly landlord, the proximity to grocery stores, that it was the first place I had all to myself. However, my favourite feature was it being next door to a Goodwill bookstore.

Shopping for books at thrift stores can be a frustrating experience. Usually they're thrown on the shelf haphazardly with minimal attempt to sort or categorize. Finding a good book among all of the bad is difficult, though rewarding.

This thrift store was different. It was a curated collection of books and other media from donation centres all over the city. The shelves were organized by subject and alphabetical by author. The employees could often help you find something specific, or at least show you where to look. Almost all of the books could be had for $2 to $4. Every month there was a sale where everything was half-off as they cleared out old inventory to make way for new.

I didn't make much money back then but I decided that I'd allow myself to shop at that bookstore without a budget. My main constraint was shelf space in my apartment. What started as a reasonable collection atop the fireplace mantle soon necessitated a floor standing bookcase. I found a used one for about $10 and told myself that once it was filled, I'd stop buying books.

That bookcase got filled, overflowed, and I bought another one. I bought more books to fill that, too. I felt a bit guilty buying books when I didn't have the time to read all of them. But still I was drawn to collecting them. They represented sources of knowledge I had yet to uncover. Maybe I would read them, maybe I wouldn't, but at least they were there.

A few year later, my wife and I had bought a house. We now had more space to ourselves and I didn't feel quite so guilty about my book collection, though it was no longer growing at the same rate since we moved away from the used bookstore. Around this time, I read The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb and was pleased to come across this same conundrum, expressed in his concept 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 don’t 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.

My unread collection of books represents an acknowledgement of what I don't know. As I read more, I expand the horizons of my knowledge, which then leads me to seek more books. It's incredibly valuable to be aware of what exists even if you don't currently understand it. The Black Swan is all about events that are hard to predict because they are outside the understanding or knowledge space of the event's participants. Taleb extends the idea to job applications; more useful than a resume is an "anti-resume": a list of things that a candidate does not know and has not done.

A public library is not a reflection of what its patrons have read, it's a collection of what they may aspire to read. It represents the boundary of knowledge, to the extent that the budget allows. While tiny in comparison, my library is the same.

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