No, I haven’t read all of the books I own cover-to-cover. I read a couple books a week all the way through. I strategically skim and search a couple more. A lot can be learned from the introduction and opening chapters of a book, so I habitually download, search, and read samples from the Kindle store. Highlights and notes from all this reading go into DEVONthink and Ulysses.
PDFs, ebooks, and web archives also go in DEVONthink, where I tag everything. DEVONthink’s AI augmented search helps me find connections among sources, including ones I haven’t read yet.
All of the partially read and unread text I collect and curate form an anti-library, one that has been useful in my writing and research on neurodiversity, disability, tech ethics, and education.
Ulysses and DEVONthink are my zettelkasten, anti-library, research database, cognitive net, and thinking space. No, I haven’t read everything that they and my bookshelves hold, but I’m constantly discovering, rediscovering, and connecting ideas while creating the conditions for serendipity.
Someone walks into your house and sees your many books on your many bookshelves. Have you really read all these? they ask. This person does not understand knowledge. A good library is comprised in large part by books you haven’t read, making it something you can turn to when you don’t know something. He calls it: the Anti-Library.
I remember once in college, the pride I felt about being able to write an entire research paper with stuff from my own anti-library. We all have books and papers that we haven’t read yet. Instead of feeling guilty, you should see them as an opportunity: know they’re available to you if you ever need them.
This is the mark you must aim for as a researcher, to not only have enough material - and to know where the rest of what you haven’t read will be located - on hand to do your work. You must build a library and an anti-library now… before you have an emergency presentation or a shot at a popular guest post.
Some questions are only asked by people with a fundamental misunderstanding. The friends who walk into my office and ask, “have you read all of these” miss the point of books.
In his book, The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb describes our relationship between books and knowledge using the legendary Italian writer Umberto Eco (1932-2016).
The writer Umberro 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 is that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendages but a research tool. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means … 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.
We tend to treat our knowledge as personal property to be protected and defended. It is an ornament that allows us to rise in the pecking order. So this tendency to offend Eco’s library sensibility by focusing on the known is a human bias that extends to our mental operations. 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. Just as we need to stand library logic on its head, we will work on standing knowledge itself on its head.
A good library is filled with mostly unread books. That’s the point. Our relationship with the unknown causes the very problem Taleb is famous for contextualizing: the black swan. Because we underestimate the value of what we don’t know and overvalue what we do know, we fundamentally misunderstand the likelihood of surprises.
The antidote to this overconfidence boils down to our relationship with knowledge. The anti-scholar, as Taleb refers to it, is “someone who focuses on the unread books, and makes an attempt not to treat his knowledge as a treasure, or even a possession, or even a self-esteem enhancement device — a skeptical empiricist.”
My library serves as a visual reminder of what I don’t know.