We all have them.
If you’re even a casual reader you know what it’s like to have books on the shelf you’ve been meaning to read for ages. They stare at you every time you walk past, accusing you, whispering insults about laziness just below the level of human hearing.
You want to read them. You just haven’t managed to get to them yet. But, with all those unread books on the shelf, why do you keep adding to them?
I came across a post today that resonated with me so strongly it felt like I was coming home. The website Brain Pickings (which comes up with a variety of fascinating information) quotes scholar Nassim Nicholas Taleb, saying,
Read books are far less valuable than unread ones.
Why? The books we haven’t read are those that hold knowledge and understanding that is not yet ours.
Have you ever stepped over the threshold of an unfamiliar library and felt the wonder of so many books to be explored? Or wandered into a second-hand bookstore or big book sale, and felt the anticipation of discoveries awaiting you?
While favourite books hold a special place, there’s something exciting about the promise of a book you’ve never read before and the secrets it holds within, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. It’s about the unique way your mind expands in fiction, becomes someone else, seeing the world though different eyes and understanding life in a new way. It’s also about the way in non-fiction you’re led through another person’s life or experiences, or their knowledge, interests or theories, in ways that only text can fully demonstrate.
Of course, the more you read, the more you know, but that only makes you realise how much you don’t know. So no matter how much you read, you feel the need for books even more, and so the shelves of unread books grows larger. Taleb calls this collection of unread books an anti-library.
Rather than a library of books you’ve read which can become an ego-booster to show off to others, a anti-library of books you haven’t read is a reminder of what you don’t know, which might help keep such vanity in check.
Brain Pickings quotes first from Lincoln Steffens, an American journalist in the early 20th century, who said,
It is our knowledge — the things we are sure of — that makes the world go wrong and keeps us from seeing and learning.
This is swiftly tied to a quote from Plato;
Most people are not just comfortable in their ignorance,
but hostile to anyone who points it out.
It goes on to explain how Taleb’s ‘Black Swan’ theory centers on “our misunderstanding of the likelihood of surprises” because we underestimate the importance of what we don’t know. Most of us tend to take what we do know “a little too seriously”.
An anti-library of books of many kinds may aid us in fighting the tendency to become comfortable in our own ignorance. Not in order for the books to remain unread, of course, but to keep replacing the ones we read with new ones, reminding ourselves that there is always so much more in this world to understand, so much more to learn, than one person alone can ever know.
These days there’s a tendency to think that a few hours of research on the internet on any topic tells us all we need to know. Books disavow us of that notion. There are books written by those who are misguided, of course, but well researched, knowledgeable authors can teach us so much, through both fiction and non-fiction of all types.
So next time you pass by your anti-library shelves of unread books, keep in mind that perhaps those whispers just below the level of human hearing aren’t admonitions about your failure to read them yet. Perhaps they’re practicing, whispering the knowledge and experiences they intend to share with you.
Long live the anti-library.