An overstuffed bookcase (or e-reader) says good things about your mind.
Lifelong learning will help you be happier, earn more, and even stay healthier, experts say. Plus, plenty of the smartest names in business, from Bill Gates to Elon Musk, insist that the best way to get smarter is to read. So what do you do? You go out and buy books, lots of them.
But life is busy, and intentions are one thing, actions another. Soon you find your shelves (or e-reader) overflowing with titles you intend to read one day, or books you flipped through once but then abandoned. Is this a disaster for your project to become a smarter, wiser person?
If you never actually get around to reading any books, then yes. You might want to read up on tricks to squeeze more reading into your hectic life and why it pays to commit a few hours every week to learning. But if it’s simply that your book reading in no way keeps pace with your book buying, I have good news for you (and for me; I definitely fall into this category): Your overstuffed library isn’t a sign of failure or ignorance, it’s a badge of honor.
Why you need an “antilibrary”
That’s the argument author and statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb makes in his bestseller The Black Swan. Perpetually fascinating blog Brain Pickings dug up and highlighted the section in a particularly lovely post. Taleb kicks off his musings with an anecdote about the legendary library of Italian writer Umberto Eco, which contained a jaw-dropping 30,000 volumes.
Did Eco actually read all those books? Of course not, but that wasn’t the point of surrounding himself with so much potential but as-yet-unrealized knowledge. By providing a constant reminder of all the things he didn’t know, Eco’s library kept him intellectually hungry and perpetually curious. An ever-growing collection of books you haven’t yet read can do the same for you, Taleb writes:
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.
An antilibrary is a powerful reminder of your limitations — the vast quantity of things you don’t know, half-know, or will one day realize you’re wrong about. By living with that reminder daily you can nudge yourself toward the kind of intellectual humility that improves decision-making and drives learning.
“People don’t walk around with anti-résumés telling you what they have not studied or experienced (it’s the job of their competitors to do that), but it would be nice if they did,” Taleb claims.
Why? Perhaps because it is a well-known psychological fact that it’s the most incompetent who are the most confident of their abilities and the most intelligent who are full of doubt. (Really. It’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect.) It’s equally well established that the more readily you admit you don’t know things, the faster you learn.
So stop beating yourself up for buying too many books or for having a to-read list that you could never get through in three lifetimes. All those books you haven’t read are indeed a sign of your ignorance. But if you know how ignorant you are, you’re way ahead of the vast majority of other people.