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A Library vs. a Collection

Recall the “antilibrary ” discussion some years back, prompted by Nassim Nicholas Taleb?

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).

Taleb was advocating building a library – an organized assemblage of books on a wide range of topics, of which the unread portion was your antilibrary. Libraries, private or public, are wonderful things, functioning in an earlier time as the poor man’s university. Andrew Carnegie endowed public libraries for that purpose and in past ages, wealthy patrons opened the doors of their private libraries to their favored scholars, like King George III did for Samuel Johnson.

My library is sizable but disorderly and eclectic. There are books on Turkic kingdoms and network theory, art history and classical economics, political memoirs and diplomatic papers, the “great books” and sci fi. And of course a great deal of books on strategy and history. My friends Lexington Green and Dave Schuler have far larger personal libraries and Lex’s, I can say firsthand, seems to be much better organized than mine ( though, admittedly, that would not be hard).

Recently, one of my uncles, an academic, decided he wanted to make me the eventual recipient of a major portion of his library, along with the funds to transport and shelve the books. This generous offer came with a proviso – that his collection is to be kept intact and passeed on only to someone else who would agree to keep it so. And it is really a collection and not a library. Naturally, I agreed

The difference between a library and a collection is puposeful focus and quality. My uncle decided on the advice of one of his mentors to really become a collector and decided to target the Hanoverian period of British history and only read and collect books that related directly in some way to the book previously read. He also specifically wanted to acquire rare editions and copies with the marginalia of important people from the period for purchase. My uncle also made a habit of going to the best rare and used bookstores (when he visits Illinois, Bookman’s Alley is his faviorite) wherever he happened to be. The uncle has been doing this for at least thirty+ years and has read his way forward to the early 20th century and in recent years, developed an extensive sub-collection dedicated to T.E. Lawrence.

Interestingly enough, none of this has anything remotely to do with his area of academic expertise (he has two doctorates; in a hard science and another in a medical specialty) but he’s made himself into more of an expert on the historiography of this period of British history than are most professional historians.The reason is a tunnel-like focus, which is the primary distinguishing characteristic between a building a general library and building a collection. There’s a comprehensiveness to a collection that becomes an end in itself.


3 Responses to “A Library vs. a Collection”

  1. Greg Linster Says:

    The anti-library is a great demonstration of epistemic humility.  I also like to remind myself that the quality of my reading matters more than the quantity. Our society seems to look higher upon the quantity an individual reads rather than the what knowledge that individual actually retains. Is information you know you’ve read, but can’t recall, really knowledge?

  2. Dave Schuler Says:

    "when he visits Illinois, Bookman’s Alley is his faviorite"Is Roger Carlson, the original owner of Bookman’s Alley, still alive?  I haven’t been there in a decade.  Roger and I used to sit around and drink together.  My friends and I used to gather there and sing (Renaissance music) there on Sunday afternoons.  

  3. zen Says:

    Hi Greg,
    Very true. An old professor of mine called losing information "the inocculation" – because you had it once and are now impervious.
    Hi Dave,
    I myself have never been to Bookman’s though I intend to go this summer and spend a good 2-3 hours there. As far as I know, Roger is alive as my uncle was such a good customer and only came in a few times a year, he let him in early to browse new arrivals in his area of interest and I’d think he would have mentioned Carlson dying. Maybe not though.

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