Monday, June 08, 2009

Unread Books Are The Most Useful

We have a huge collection of books, between the Wifey, myself, and the kids. It is not worth much in actual financial value, seeing as most are 50¢ thriftshop and garage sale books, but we love them anyway. We do, invariably, get the "boy, you must read a lot" comment from the sellers of the books, and while it's generally true, we purchase far more books than we actually sit down to read. There is an underlying fear that this reflects poorly on us, that there is an unvirtuous imbalance between ambition and effort when it comes to our love for books, but Umberto Eco explains it best in the introduction to The Black Swan:
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 will 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.
Far from just a justification of owning lots of books without reading them, the Black Swan theory explains why this is a necessity to people who understand they do not know it all. In the theory, emphasis is on understanding (but not necessarily predicting) the high-impact but unpredictable factors in understanding the world around you. Discovering a black swan, when all evidence points towards all swans being white, is a paradigm-shifting idea but without any evidence to predict it to be true. People have pointed out how D and I have involved, detailed conversations, and how we talk far more than other couples, and not just "what'd you do today" or "saw the funniest thing on TV last night." Most of the time, we're talking about the new things we've learned recently, stories of Death Valley model railroaders and Irish terrorists in 19th Century Minnesota. This would not be possible if we didn't have a huge resource of unknowns in our immediate vicinity: the only way to learn is to have access to the not-yet-learned. We are constantly extending the reach of our knowledge, expanding out understanding of the world, and we can't do that if we spend our time watching TV or playing video games. Even with the internet in front of us all day, most of the new, amazing things we learn come from old books and vintage magazines, both of which we collect and hoard for the pleasure of owning information that we do not yet know.

Via, but further back via.

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