The Antilibrary & The Value of What You Don't Know

In his umberto-eco bestseller The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes about Umberto Eco’s library.

The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a larger 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 do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allow 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.[1]

I like this line of reasoning, and I agree (though my wife may not). My library is not the size of Umberto Eco’s — at least not yet — but I have amassed some collection of books both read and unread. As suggested, some were purchased for their reference value only. Many’s the time I have been chasing down the thread of an idea and been able to pull a book from the shelf and flesh it out based on what was at hand because I had information at my fingertips that I had not yet committed to my consciousness. Strategic Intuition works like this, offering you a glimpse of something that needs fleshing out… perhaps an insight from an unrelated discipline. Reading Taleb’s explanation of the antilibrary, I am no longer taunted by the unread books, but instead can value them quite highly, if in a slightly different manner.

Consider keeping at your fingertips any access to information you don’t already know… whether this be books, people, or other resources. Duplicating what you already know has no value, but knowledge you don’t possess but which you can put your fingers on and harness is of immense value.

Does this image of the library at Trinity College in Dublin make you salivate, cause your heart to beat just a little faster? Perhaps you know what we’re talking about.


There’s more where that came from.


  1. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, p.1 [back]