Antilibrary

“It is our knowledge — the things we are sure of — that makes the world go wrong and keeps us from seeing and learning.”

-Lincoln Steffens in his 1925 essay.

Tsundoku is acquiring reading material and letting them pile up, without actually reading them.

Apparently there is actually a dedicated term for my affliction.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, an American- Lebanese scholar (I am not sure what else to call him- writer? essayist? financial guru? contemporary philosopher?) talks about this in his book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.

“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 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.

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 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. Let us call this an antischolar — someone who focuses on the unread books, and makes an attempt not to treat his knowledge as a treasure, or even a possession, or even a self-esteem enhancement device — a skeptical empiricist.”

The first time I heard the word ‘antilibrary’ was when I read this. It was fascinating to know that petty, little me and a world- renowned essayist shared views.

I always had the urge to pick up books on a whim, unfortunately did not have the means to do so. Owning books, like so many other good things in life is a privilege afforded to a minority. Unlike a lot of my peers, I rarely went out seeking a particular book on someone else’s recommendation. Of course, this was in my younger days- which has changed somewhat in recent times thanks to the internet where people’s views, suggestions and exhortations are shoved down my throat whether I like them or not.

What I preferred to do, was visit a bookstore and keep meandering the aisles. Endlessly, languorously, purposelessly. The books, they lay there. Some proud and snooty, some unapproachable, others beckoning and friendly. Some would be charming, some shy and some call out so loudly that you can not but heed. Then you pick up a few that scream at you, sometimes you pick those that seem the most resistant. And you head home. You house them all in your misshapen, gravid shelf and they lay there, waiting their turn.

I sometimes get to a book years after I buy them. Recently, someone close to me, cleared out his physical library (going all digital apparently) and therefore handed over dozens of books to yours truly. I dragged all of them across state lines along with the rest of my ‘burdens’ (as my husband like to call them). Obviously there are so many unread books with me right now. But like Taleb says, only a few would understand the pleasure of ‘discovering’ books in your own personal collection. I am now pushed to read things that I may otherwise not pick up. It has been a revelation- how I judge books on genres, authors, topics etc. And how reading from some else’s collection would change your own.

In time, I would like to slowly rid myself of the books I have already read. That would be a sad and terrible exercise, I am sure. No matter what I tell myself, it’s unlikely I will find it within myself to re- read any of them (except Harry Potter and LOTR perhaps!) . Not because I wouldn’t like to but mostly because there are so many other books out there that I am yet to get to. I have but only a few meagre years left! I would like to empty my library and then build my dream antilibrary. If the current library instils a small sense of arrogant self- appreciation, the antilibrary should be an in- my-face, daily reminder of how much I do not know. How much knowledge and joy there is still hidden in the pages that I have not yet touched.

Very, very few people understand the fact that a personal library is not for ego- boosting exhibition of literacy, intellect or wisdom. The era of zoom calls, where people are scrambling to get a book shelf as the background- contrived or otherwise, makes it hard for people to understand this.

It isn’t to prove anything, to anyone. It isn’t for show. It serves an extremely private and selfish purpose which has nothing to do with anybody else. I do not care what someone thinks of the books I have or have not read.

The fact that hold on to books that I have already read- I am not proud of it. It means that at some level, I am still clutching- on to the twigs of my past. The plots and concepts of every book, may have already slipped through the cracks of my memory, but the times they reflect are usually echoed bright.

Someday, I hope to be unencumbered by such petty love for this life. That will be the day, when my antilibrary takes root.

Till next time,

J

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