If you, like me, have a thing for obsessively gazing at beautiful home libraries, then its very possible that you have come across the library of the great Italian author Umberto Eco. Eco’s incredibly vast home library is the stuff of legend, and was further enshrined by the economist Nassim Taleb’s characterization of Eco’s library as an anti-library. In his words, from his classic 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 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.
If a library is about the knowledge that you have, or purport to have, an anti-library is about the knowledge that you do not yet have, and do not even purport to have. (Disclaimer: Discerning members of the 18Forty family will recall Eco for his book The Name of the Rose, and the role that religious comedy plays there.) If you are trying to come to terms with the anti-library, consider Victor Frankl’s words: “wisdom is knowledge plus – knowledge and the knowledge of its own limits.”
The limits of our knowledge, and our hopes and aspirations for our growth, speaks even to what we know now, and therein lies the wisdom. Of course, part of the beauty of the anti-library is about the book curation of the anti-bookshelves; What books do you know nothing about, and hope to know better your own non-knowing of? Will an infinite amount of clickbait, social media posts, and airport thrillers fill up our bookshelves, or might we cultivate a more aspirational future for ourselves?
This brings us to the anti-reading list of the German philosopher Schoepenhauer. In a counter-intuitive move, he reminds us that equally as important as what you do read is what you don’t read: “The art of not reading is a very important one. It consists in not taking an interest in whatever may be engaging the attention of the general public at any particular time.”
This summer, let’s practice the art of reading, and the art of not-reading. Let’s cultivate more meaningful reading lists, as well as more meaningful anti-reading lists, on which we might put all the media that we want to engage in less, no matter how many headlines they get. Just as a reading list demands intentionality, an anti-reading list demands intentionality, if not more. To help us cultivate a more meaningful reading list, and anti-reading list, for this summer, we are joined by three thoughtful guests: Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt, David Hopen, and Rachel Grady. Each brings us into their specialty: Fiction, non-fiction, and documentaries, and walks us through their favorite media, to help us make meaning on these long summer days.