The intellectual’s new status symbol

The new status symbol of the pseudo-intellectual: Owning tens of thousands of books and dubbing them your antilibrary.

When the insufferable fool asks the enlightened owner of these books, “Why do you have so many? Have you read them all?”, the enlightened owner’s chest swells. He replies: “Hahaha, of course not. It is my antilibrary.” 

“What is an antilibrary?” asks the fool.

This is the owner’s moment of quiet glory. He takes his time. He explains what an antilibrary is. He describes how what we don’t know is more important that what we do. He tells the fool why he feels duty-bound to collect so many volumes.

But he’s missing the point. Before I explain why, let me catch you up. 

Here is Nassim Taleb, in The Black Swan, explaining the concept of an antilibrary:

“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.”

In Taleb’s and Eco’s mind, books are working tools, not collector’s items. You use them, pick them up, put them down, challenge them, critique them. They are there to help you solve your problems. Not to offer distraction and entertainment, though they do do that too.

To these two men, owning an antilibrary is not the same as using an antilibrary. 

Here’s Eco in an Art of Fiction interview explaining how he uses his antilibrary. When asked, “With so many volumes, when you go to the bookshelf, how do you decide which book to pick up and read?”, he responds:

“I don’t go to the bookshelves to choose a book to read. I go to the bookshelves to pick up a book I know I need in that moment. It’s a different story. For instance, if you were to ask me about contemporary authors, I would look through my collections of Roth or DeLillo to remember exactly what I loved. I am a scholar. In a way I should say I am never freely choosing. I am following the needs of the job I am doing at any given time.”

​You determine the books you read by the problems you face. As Taleb says, you should move from problems to books, rather than the reverse. Let me supply an example.

Say someone close to me dies. I choose to find comfort and relief in books. Where do I go? Who or what will I read?

I’d probably come back to philosophy. I’d revisit Seneca’s letters, as well as Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. I’d review Montaigne’s Essays. I’d purchase some of the books on my wishlist that I know can help me deal with loss and grief and anger. There are many other sources I’d turn to.

This is the true purpose of an antilibrary. It’s not for show. It’s there to help you overcome the problems you are facing.