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.
– Nassim Nicholas Taleb in the Black Swan
A Collection of Menacing Books
The more I attend conferences, interact with others and read blogs in the various software communities I take interest in (testing, entrepreneurship, technology, etc.) the greater the number of books I find I’d like to consume. It seems almost automatic these days to ask for books or references someone has found useful to solve problems or gain a wider (or deeper) perspective on a subject.
Yet a collection of books on a list or sitting on in Dropbox isn’t nearly as menacing and doesn’t call to me the same way as having those books sitting on my shelf where I have to watch them age.
I try to find balance between only owning those things I can and do use regularly and a more consumerist desire where I need to have lots of options. I’m more on the minimalist side where I want no clutter (of anything) so I constantly edit what I own. Part of this comes from wanting to be practical and trying to understand trade-offs between buying something now or something better later. Part comes from the fear of getting “behind” or having too many choices.
This manifests in many ways including trying not to accumulate too many books.
A Research Tool
When I first toured Cem Kaner’s personal library I fell into the first category of people from the quote above. I think I said, “Wow what a library”, as the size of his personal collection was more immense than anything I’d seen. Now it wasn’t comparable in size to Umberto Eco’s but it was impressive enough that I felt the need to tell him so. My parents have book shelves filled with books they read twenty years ago but Cem had bookshelves full of books he hadn’t read and those he kept around for reference. After my “impressive” comment, Cem made it clear the point of his private library was not built to impress but as a research tool.
Keeping materials around for research or reference makes sense. Some you might keep around because you feel a special attachment to or because they gain in value but most books don’t. They aren’t trophies either.
The anti-library (or antilibrary) seems like the logical compromise between acquisition and usefulness. Get rid of those books you’ve read and aren’t likely to reference again and keep the collection of books you haven’t. Don’t make it your library, make it your anti-library.