Monday, September 28, 2015

My antilibrary

In The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb says that the writer Umberto Eco has thirty thousand books in his library. Most visitors focus on the books that are read but Taleb says that one should focus on the books that are not read which he calls the antilibrary. The more you know the  larger should be the number of books that you have not read.  The library should contain as much of what you do not know as you can reasonably store.

Whenever I come across titles of books that look interesting, I bookmark it. You can call this my virtual antilibrary. I keep adding to this list even though I know that I will  be able to read only a small fraction of the books in it (because of the limitations of time). Every book I read seems to give me 3-4 new book ideas. I keep getting surprised by how much I don't know even in areas where I thought I knew something.

Just after getting admission in IIMA, one person told me that in two years I will 'know everything'. It seems as if since then (especially after my stroke  when I've had more free time) I have been chiefly engaged in finding out how limited his concept of knowing everything was. I get disconcerted when I hear people ascribe knowledge to me that I don't have. It is becoming increasingly clear that the MBA degree is over-rated by society.

Meanwhile my antilibrary keeps growing. Of course, it has nowhere near the number of books that are in Eco's physical library. And yes, it now has some books by Umberto Eco because Taleb says that he 'belongs to that small class of scholars who are, encyclopedic, insightful, and non-dull'. I don't know when I will get around to reading them because there are other book ideas that take precedence (for now).

The concept of  the antilibrary explains why people who know the least are the most confident and why relying on the 'wisdom of the youth' is not a very good idea - they don't know how much they don't know. If I had written down my thoughts on various issues when I was in my teens and twenties, they would have made hilarious reading now. Confucius ("Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance"), Bertrand Russel ("One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision")  and Charles Darwin ("Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge") knew what they were talking about.

PS :Taleb uses the analogy of an antilibrary to explain his argument about rare events in his book. The Black Swan, an argument that I agree with - no amount of white swan sightings allows you to make the claim that 'all swans are white' but the sighting of just one black swan is enough to make the claim that 'all swans are not white'. There is an asymmetry in the level of certainty that you can ascribe to statements- you can be very certain about the negative statement but you can't have the same level of certainty about the positive  statement.

The common argument that is offered against any warning of any sort -'it hasn't happened before' - focuses on the books that you have read and ignores the unread books. It illustrates 'the tendency to look at what confirms our knowledge, not our ignorance'.


  1. Well, have you read 'The Name of the Rose' or not?

  2. Nice read. Reminds of the lines from a Simon & Garfunkel song ...I know what I know.... Might as well be ...I don't know what I don't know....

    Vivek Chandel