The Beaumont Friends of the Library held their annual 10-cent Book Sale this past weekend. The basement was crammed with 5,000 to 10,000 books (plus some records, DVDs and CDs) for the ridiculously low price of 10 cents each. For even the casual bibliophile, it is an opportunity too hard to pass up.
But what about those of us who have “too many” books (just kidding, there is no such thing as “too many” books). I already have two boxes of unread books from recent estate sales stashed in the corner of my office, so do I really need the 31 books I bought at the sale?
According to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of “The Black Swan,” yes I do.
In Jessica Stillman’s Dec. 5 story in Ink.com, she cites Taleb’s theory of the “antilibrary”:
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 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.
While I acknowledge that my insistence on owning and keeping the books I have read (preferably with whatever I used as a bookmark staying with it), is somewhat excessive (and the reason I don’t like libraries — one has to give the book back), the idea of unread books as a motivator is sound. One of my old editors once told me that the thought that she will never get to read everything is depressing, but it didn’t mean she wasn’t going to try. It is no coincidence that she has gone on to a pretty successful career.
I was studying Romantic literature in a graduate class one day when I came across a passing reference to William Wordsworth‘s poem “Tintern Abbey.” It was not part of the syllabus, and with the volume of reading for the course, I was unlikely to get to it. I was probably not going to have time for it once I started the next class either. It suddenly occurred to me that I was likely to get a master’s in English while never having read “Tintern Abbey.” How much more was I not going to have read? How much more was I not going to know?
Although it is a relatively short poem, I resolved never to read “Tintern Abbey.” It is the symbol to remind me that I cannot do it all. No matter how much I think I know, I don’t know “Tintern Abbey.”
It probably sounds stupid, but I have all sorts of coping mechanisms to keep me sane-ish, so it’s just another on the list.
So my collection grows (it’s not hoarding if it’s books — and at least I am not like Umberto Eco who owned 30,000, although that sounds wonderful). I like to be surrounded by them. It makes me happy to sit back surrounded by past experiences. And many of them are art books, which don’t count because it’s not like reading when you are scouring the pictures for inspiration.
But honestly, I don’t need excuses. I just like knowing stuff (so teaching journalism is a good career choice, it’s all about wanting to know more stuff). When I was a child I reveled in being called a know-it-all, which people thought was supposed to be an insult. But I am not a know-it-all. I am a know-very-little. But it’s something to aim for.
“The wise man is one who knows what he does not know” — Lao Tsu