The importance of the anti-library: converting unknown unknowns into known unknowns

I had a revelation last night, unbelievably courtesy of Downton Abbey. In the show’s latest Christmas special, a butler asks, “Do you really want tea served here in the library, ma’am? Tea, here, is usually served in the anti-library.”

I’d never heard of an ‘anti-library’, and Google wasn’t much help in terms of the historical context*. However, the word has been mentioned in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Taleb tells of the writer Umberto Eco, whose personal library contains more than 30,000 books. Visitors are often astounded at the sheer volume of books, and they ask him how many he’s actually read.

That misses the point, though; for Eco, it’s not about how many you’ve read as it is about the ones you know you should read but haven’t yet delved into. Those books – the ones you own and want to read but haven’t – make up your ‘anti-library’.

Taleb believes a private library is a research tool, not an ego booster, and that read books are less valuable than unread ones.

“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,” he says. “Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books.”

Taleb believes that truly intelligent people will constantly strive to learn more, to inform themselves. The anti-library is, therefore, a marker of ‘unknowledge’. It’s about converting ‘unknown unknowns’ into ‘known unknowns’. Knowing how much you don’t know will ultimately help you, because ‘known unknowns’ can always be converted into ‘known knowns’. But it’s what you don’t know that is worrying.

I like the concept of the anti-library, mostly because it justifies my habit of incessantly acquiring new books while lacking the time to read them all. There’s something very comforting about owning stacks of books – particularly non-fiction – and having them immediately on hand, should you want to know something about (say) Hitler, inequality, cats or economics.

I have a few pressing items currently in my antilibrary: The Mighty Totara, by David Grant, a biography of Norman Kirk; The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford, a sort of Freakonomics paperback; Grammar Rules by Craig Shrives (self-explanatory) and Globish by Robert McCrum, a piece on how the English language became the world’s language.

I’m also curious about what’s in other people’s antilibraries, so I asked three of the smartest folk I know – ad creative Vaughn Davis, writer Deborah Hill Cone, and journalist David Cohen – what they have in theirs.

Vaughn is currently sitting on Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century and The New Zealand Economy: An introduction, by Ralph Lattimore and Shamubeel Eaqub (I have the latter title in my mental antilibrary), while Deborah says she loves “pretty much any business book that promises to tell you how to do it” and has been staring at Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.

David, who’s an author himself several times over, confesses to owning a vast antilibrary: “I buy lots of books on Amazon, get them in the mail and unwrap them, admire the cover, and slip it on a shelf never to be looked at again.”

What’s in your antilibrary, mental or tangible, at the moment? Inquiring minds wish to know.

*Side note: It transpires that the anti-library in a Downton Abbey sense as in fact an ante-library, a room where the overflow from the actual library was housed.