The Argentinian writer and librarian José Luis Borges wrote in an essay that he had always imagined paradise as a kind of library.[1] This paradise, which Umberto Ecco called an anti-library, is now to be explored and the meaning of the books fathomed on a meta-level.

Antilibrary in a nutshell

Tsundoku (Japanese 積 ん 読, for piling up books)[2] paraphrases that one acquires books, but which then pile up at home without being read. The negative connotation of this paraphrase cannot be denied. In my opinion, books are acquired not only to be read later, but rather to enjoy the historical background, the haptic unusualness or simply to satisfy a passion for collecting. The American author and book collector A. Edward Newton (1864-1940) had a library of over 10,000 books. His 1918 work entitled “The Amenities of Book-Collecting and Kindred Affections”[3] almost unknown in Europe, dealt with the friends and sufferings of a book collector. After his death, the whole collection was sold and Newton’s three-volume catalogue is still a source for many book collectors of English and American literature.

I consider the purchase of more books than one might read to be nothing less than the soul’s pursuit of infinity; that is the only thing that raises us above the animals.

A. Edward Newton (1884-1940)

This quest of the soul for infinity also preoccupied Umberto Eco (1932-2016) throughout his life. His extensive private library was acquired by the Italian Ministry for Cultural Assets and Activities at the beginning of 2021. For the more than 30,000 titles of modern works, a separate library named after Umberto Eco is to be created in Bologna as part of the university library, where his study will also be reconstructed. Works written before the 20th century, on the other hand, will find a new home at the Biblioteca Nazionale Braidense in Milan. In his writings, Eco liked to comment on libraries often, prominently, for example, in his remarks on library[4] itself from 1987, in which he again refers to the above-mentioned Borges.

Nasim Nicholas Taleb in his work “The Black Swan” takes[5] reference to Eco’s library and writes about it:

The writer Umberto Eco belongs to the small class of academics who are encyclopaedic, knowledgeable and not boring. He owns a large private library with 30,000 books and divides his visitors into two categories: those with “Oooooh! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library! How many of those books have you read?”, and the others (a very small minority) who realise that a private library is not an appendage to polish up one’s ego, but serves research. Read books are nowhere near as valuable as unread ones. A library should contain as much of what one doesn’t know as the owner can put in it, given his financial means, mortgage payments and the current tight property market. The older he gets, the more knowledge and books he will accumulate, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will stare at him menacingly. The rows of unread books will even grow longer the more he knows. Such a collection of unread books is what we want to take anti-library.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb in „The Black Swan“ P. 17.

Eco’s anti-library is thus a research tool or a so-called reference library as a private library. The satisfaction lies in gathering and collecting everything in book form that gives personal pleasure and arouses interest. Or as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe has his Mephistoles say in Faust I: “For what one possesses in black and white, one can confidently carry home.” The anti-library according to Eco is thus a collection of all the subjects one would like to delve into. A private library reduces the Dunning-Kruger effect[6]. This describes the cognitive bias in the self-image of incompetent people to overestimate their own knowledge and ability. A private library makes the known unknown clear to us and we do not overestimate ourselves for lack of knowledge of the unknown unknown. he Black Swan is thus hiding between the spines of the unread books and we are well aware of this, even if we have not yet grasped the unknown. The unknown unknown becomes the known unknown and this knowledge provides humility. Thus the question does not apply: “Have you read all this?”. Astonishment should lead to the quiet realisation that the collector and researcher has amassed a private library of the subjects that interest him and dares to surround himself with the known unknown. Socrates is credited with having said: “I know that I know nothing” and this not-knowing is in every anti-library according to Eco. Thus, unread books are the visual reminder of what we do not (yet) know.[7]

The newspaper NZZ once wrote about Umberto Eco and his anti-library:

Each individual book is, in other words, already a small library in itself – and a research program that sometimes takes you up for many years. At the end of a lifetime, at least in the ideal case, a bookworm knows everything she ever wanted to know – and yet is ready to read all the books in her library all over again. To paraphrase Eco: If you don’t read, you won’t have lived a single life. But whoever reads like Umberto Eco has lived many lives.

Rene Scheu, NZZ article from 22.03.2016 with the title "Das Lesetier" (The reading animal).

[1] Blindheit, in: Borges, Jorge Luis (2001): Die letzte Reise des Odysseus (in german), Fischer-TB, S. 188 Original: „Siempre imaginé que el Paraíso sería algún tipo de biblioteca.“

[2] Susanne Lenz: Tsundoku: Die Kunst, Bücher zu kaufen und sie nicht zu lesen (in german). In: Berliner Zeitung. 09.11.2020.

[3] Newton, A. Edward (1918): The Amenities of Book-Collecting and Kindred Affections.

[4] Eco, Umberto (1987): The Library (in german), Carl Hanser-Verlag München, siehe PDF.

[5] Taleb, Nassim Nicholas (2008): The Black Swan.

[6] See online 07.11.2021.

[7] See online the following blogs and 07.11.2021

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