zenpundit.com » Blog Archive » Munzenberg’s Viral Post: What is in your Antilibrary?

Munzenberg’s Viral Post: What is in your Antilibrary?

The other day, I was having a conversation in the comments section regarding ancient Chinese philosophers with my learned friend Lexington Green, when I had cause to quote Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from his most recent 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 vistors 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 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 wil accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growig 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 the collection of unread books an antilibrary.

A passage that immediately made me feel better about having resigned myself to falling further and further behind in reading the books that I keep purchasing ( I’m now also periodically finding myself going to IKEA to buy shelf extensions. I’ve resigned myself to that too).

The obscurely named Munzenberg of Soob, also enjoyed Taleb’s take on the proper function of a book collection and has begun a viral post What is in your Antilibrary?:

I’d like to pose a question to those who read this blog entry: What are three to five books on your shelf that lay unread and what knowledge do you hope to retrieve from them? [ ed.- see Munzenberg’s antilibrary here]

….I suppose I may have to tag people to get a widespread antilibrary booklist going. Feel free if you are reading this blog entry to start your own entry (the more books the better right?). I’ll link to you here if I catch it. I shall tag:

Adam Elkus

As Munzenberg has graciously “tagged” me, here is a fraction of my current antilibrary (the antilibrary appears to be a dynamic state with a definite phase transition to library status) I decided to avoid those recently acquired books at the top of my pile and use some finely-aged examples:

On the Origins of War: And the Preservation of Peace by Donald Kagan

Bought it after I enjoyed reading his revisionist The Peloponnesian War with the intent of getting into Kagan’s head on strategy and military history in general. I was reading a flood other military books at the time and it was lost in the shuffle

HO CHI MINH: A LIFE by William J. Duiker

This is a critically acclaimed biography by a highly respected scholar which I intended to read in tandem with recent biographies of Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao ZeDong, in order to get a feel for the interlocking social networks these leaders shared (Zhou Enlai was a hub for each man for a time). I finished those books but have not begun this one yet.

The Growth of the Mind: And the Endangered Origins of Intelligence by Stanley Greenspan, MD

I actually started this one but it was thrown into a packing box during a year I was building a house, selling another and moving several times. It then spent several years in storage before making it back on to a shelf. The purpose was to learn more about cognitive development in children.

Pillar of Fire : America in the King Years 1963-65 (America in the King Years) by Taylor Branch

Refresher on social, African-American and political history. Like the Kagan book, it was crowded out of the must-read bookpile by the deluge of military history and strategy books that I was reading at the time

The House of Rothschild: Volume 2: The World’s Banker: 1849-1999 by Niall Ferguson

As I am one of those freaks who actually enjoys economic history, I read Ferguson’s first volume years ago and thought it was lucidly written. This book too, fell victim to the packing box

It’s a rare opportunity to be on the ground floor of one of these viral posts and to be able to watch how far afield it travels, so I am selecting my “tags” with great care:

Sean Meade


Brad DeLong

Valdis Krebs

Dave Dilegge

Dave Schuler


Younghusband opines on The Traveller’s Library

22 Responses to “Munzenberg’s Viral Post: What is in your Antilibrary?”

  1. Dave Schuler Says:

    Oh my.  I’ll have to think about this one.  I read practically every thing I buy (or am given).

  2. ComingAnarchy.com » Blog Archive » The Traveller’s Antilibrary Says:

    […] this is a brilliant concept (EDIT: An updated post here at Zenpundit) that Münzenberg picked up and got me thinking. I have a small stack of to-read […]

  3. Valdis Says:

    Holes in your knowledge may be as useful as holes in your network!  No, really, "structural holes" are good for your network… read anything by Ron Burt to find out why.Books I have, but have yet to read…"The Dreams of Reason"  by Heinz Pagels" Ripples from the Zambezi" by Ernetso Sirolli"Identity and Control" by Harrison White"Einstein" by Walter Isaacson"Russia’s Economy of Favors" by Alena LedenevaStarted reading "Einstein" and thought about making a social network map of the people in the book…

  4. Eddie Says:

    Sweet!  I can’t wait to read these posts and watch the spread.  

  5. Fabius Maximus Says:

    Thank you for this post.  Now I feel better about all those unopened books gathering dust on my shelves.  Here is are some on the top of the list:

    A History of Private Lives (the whole set)
    A History of the Arab People, Albert Hourani (does it count if its started but not finished?)
    On War, Clausewitz (does it count if we have skimmed it?, double-points if its very boring?)
    John Adams, David McCullough
    Another question:  list the books that you have bought, never read, and wondered why you bought it.  Like The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman.  Reading Tabbi’s review killed my interest in the book (reading Friedman’s NYT columns might also do so):
    "The peculiar genius of Thomas L. Friedman", Matt Tabbi, New York Press.
    This has the all-time best ending line for a book review:  "Four hundred and 73 pages of this, folks. Is there no God?"

  6. zen Says:

    Hi Valdis,

    Thank you for your swift response! I will check out Ron Burt.
    Hi Dave,

    Just give it your best effort. If you have read all you own then I’ve even more impressed!
    Hi Eddie,

    I’m curious too. Dave Davison tried to track down the last one of these but this time we have ground zero.
    Hi FM,

    Heh. The World is Flat is part of my Antilibrary too. Intended to read it and it was unceremoniously bumped by something else, either the Sandra Mackey book on Iran or the Chiang bio. Clausewitz was speed-read 20 years ago for an undergrad German history class at the same time I was trying to read (and comprehend the transliterated gibberish of) Kant’s Prologue to a Critique of Pure Reason and Marx’s 18 Brumaire – I fear On War did not get the same level of attention that I’d have given it today.

  7. James F Says:

    "What it Takes" by Kramer on the 88 Presidential campaign – supposed to be a masterpiece; "Neuromancer" after seeing it recommended here; "The British Empire in the Middle East" by William Roger Louis to see how an over-extended power dealt with all the problems in the post-war era; "The Japanese Art of War" by Cleary which Boyd was apparently a big fan of; "On War" by Clausewitz – I’m the same as FM above.

    By the way, thinking about Munzenberg… if you haven’t then you should definitely read "Double Lives" by Stephen Koch which looks at the career of Willi Munzenberg.  It’s one of the best books on propaganda anywhere. 

  8. Antilibrary « KuiperCliff Says:

    […] Posted on 28 March 2008 by kuipercliff Off the back of a post by Zenpundit regarding Umberto Eco’s ‘antilibrary’, Soob posed the following question: […]

  9. Fabius Maximus Says:

    On War might be the most common volume in military antilibraries. 

    "A German friend has a first edition {of On War}; he notes, ‘It is in perfect condition. It was in a regimental library, so it was never touched.’”  From William Lind’s "Strategic Defense Initiative".

  10. dave davison Says:

    I know you purposefully protected my ROA by delisting me from the carefully selected tagees – but I would be interested in following the virality of the antilibrary. My reference librarian daughter Susan Barb gave me The Black Swan for Xmas and I found Taleb’s arrogance a bit much, but the theme and contents of his book very practical.

    On the shelf: The Coldest Winter by David Halberstam
    Visual Thinking by Rudolf Arnheim
    The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker.

    Echoing Eco and Taleb – I propose a diverging vector to this virality party – why not list books you have read many times and still don’t get the full message – The Philosopher’s Stone by David Peat, The Hypertropic Mind by Stan Grof, Synergetics, by Bucky Fuller stare at me from my bookshelf.

  11. Moon Says:

    True to Taleb, I’ll suggest that library and antilibrary correspond to White and Grey knowledge, respectively.  For me, the riveting library is the Black one, those tomes which you neither know should be in your White or Grey stacks nor know can be in your Black stack.  What’s Grey can sting you, but it’s the Black that can devastate your world.  By definition, even building out your Grey stack (by virally networking with the Grey stacks of your extended cohort) does not illuminate your Black stack.  I think the Black stack may serve the useful Gedankenexperiment of deciding which books have not been written but should be.  Do your best to expect the unexpected and feed your prospective Grey stack with your Black.

  12. Lexington Green Says:

    What Moon said is blowing my mind a little bit.  So, White knowledge = books I have read.  Grey knowledge  = books I know about, or own, but haven’t read yet.  BUT we also have Black knowledge = books I DO NOT YET KNOW I should want to read, or which DO NOT EXIST, but should.   The deeper you get into the White and Grey areas, you start to see more and more "Black books" taking shape.  Your research and reading of bibliographies shows you there is a gap.  You ask yourself, how come nobody has pulled together this or that cluster of knowledge in one place for me?

    I had a post on one example of this here:


    But aren’t there really two categories within the "Black"?  The books you figure out should exist, but don’t.  That is a known unknown.  Or a known-to-be-nonexistent.  But even more mysteriously, the unknown unknowns, books you do not even yet realize that you want and/or need to answer questions you may not yet even know you want to have answered?  Of course this last category may consist in part of books which actually DO exist.  You just don’t know about them yet.   Or you just don’t know you need them yet.

    This is all deeper than I initially thought … .

  13. Dave Dilegge Says:

    I have two (one to reread – actually – really read –  and the other to read beyond interpreation snippets), The Bible and The Koran.  Why?  Maybe someone here has the answer to that.

  14. Moon Says:

    Lex Green, I think the known unknown is in your Grey stack, having been placed there from your Black stack once you mark out what it is, or someone informs you of it.  The Black stack is all unknown unknowns, and you can’t see anything on your Black stack.  You do, however, know that your Black stack is the largest of the three stacks.
    Another way to look at it is that each individual has a Grey stack that uniquely encroaches on the Big Universal Black stack.  The Black stack is defined not by what is in it, but by what is not in it, i.e. the sum of all Grey stacks.  Here’s a question for the folks with large brains who can better assist me and my median brain:  does the Black stack have some amorphous locus, toward which we are driving with our peripheral Grey (and White) stacks?  Or is it the Grey-White stacks that have the locus, and we are exploring radially from the locus toward the indefinite Black information horizon?

  15. zen Says:

    So…many…topics…can’t focus…but must…try…..
    Hi Dave (Davison)
    I agree with you that Taleb projects considerable arrogance; I can tolerate that when it is conjoined with intelligence and something worth saying. My problem is running into guys in real life who try to combine arrogance with stupidity;)
    In terms of following the virality, Munzenberg has updated his post with linkbacks unrelated to those here. To answer your challenge, I find that it is fiction that has most caused me to re-read ( Lord of the Rings 4 times; Atlas Shrugged 3 times; The Master and Margarita, 1984, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, Lord of the Flies 2 times each) but in terms of Non-fiction I’ve read through the entirety of The Gulag Archipelago and Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich twice. The enormity of evil is the hook, I suppose.
    Hi Dave (Dilegge)
    You can’t be fully educated unless you have read the Bible -aside from the spiritual interest for many ppl, the text is so heavily referenced or alluded to in other literature. The Quran I have heard is very difficult to read correctly because it is an alinear text and a lot of background context has to be provided to understand the relation or meaning of one sura to another. Maybe if Charles Cameron reads this comment thread, he can elucidate.
    Hi James F.
    Reading What it Takes explained to me why Bob Dole was never, ever, going to become President of the United States. There is an interview with Kramer by Brian Lamb in the C-Span Booknotes archives that is worth watching.

  16. The Glittering Eye » Blog Archive » My Anti-library Says:

    […] response to Mark Safranski’s question, of the books in my overflowing and bizarrely eclectic library that I still have yet to read here […]

  17. The Shelves of my Antilibrary Says:

    […] post “What is in your Antilibrary?” by Münzenberg. I found this post via the blog zenpundit by @zenpundit. This made me look at my own shelves. So what books are in my […]

  18. Chicago Boyz » Blog Archive » An Image of Martial Discord Says:

    […] the place. No I haven’t read them all yet. But no worries. The unread ones are part of my grey knowledge, which makes it OK. Life is short. The book-pile is high, and getting […]

  19. Too bad you never knew Ace Hanna » Blog Archive » The Shelves of my Antilibrary Says:

    […] viral post “What is in your Antilibrary?“? by Münzenberg. I found this post via the blog zenpundit by @zenpundit. This made me look at my own shelves. So what books are in my […]

  20. A Strategic Clarion Call, Part I « Smitten Eagle Says:

    […] The Kilcullen Doctrine and the Drone Attacks both are cases of Tactics Without Strategy.  Some are now looking to Thomas P.M. Barnett to supply the necessary grand strategy to compliment the Tactics.  Indeed, that is the implicit argument of Tom’s first book on Grand Strategy, The Pentagon’s New Map. The second book, Blueprint For Action, is essentially an amplification of various points and implication of PNM.  Barnett’s third book, Great Powers attempts to provide a basis for Barnett’s grand strategy by using certain narratives of American history.  (Here I must confess to have only read the first two books of Barnett’s trilogy.  GP remains in my anti-library.) […]

  21. Chicago Boyz » Blog Archive » A Strategic Clarion Call: Part I Says:

    […] The Kilcullen Doctrine and the Drone Attacks both are cases of Tactics Without Strategy. Some are now looking to Thomas P.M. Barnett to supply the necessary grand strategy to compliment the Tactics. Indeed, that is the implicit argument of Tom’s first book on Grand Strategy, The Pentagon’s New Map. The second book, Blueprint For Action, is essentially an amplification of various points and implication of PNM. Barnett’s third book, Great Powers attempts to provide a basis for Barnett’s grand strategy by using certain narratives of American history. (Here I must confess to have only read the first two books of Barnett’s trilogy. GP remains in my anti-library.) […]

  22. Mike Lotus at the U.S. Army War College 2014 National Security Strategy Seminar | America 3.0 Says:

    […] The lecture on the second day was by Rachel Maddow. I was not sure what to expect. I do not watch her TV show, but I understand I would not agree with her on very much. However, she gave a good talk. She drew on her book Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power. The gist of her argument is that the American Founders intentionally made it difficult to engage the country in a war, and that it is now too easy for the political leadership to turn to the military to solve problems. Her regard for the military and her desire to see them only sent into danger after deep and due deliberation was clearly sincere. Generally, I agreed with her presentation. I added her book to my anti-library. […]

Switch to our mobile site