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

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