It happened on the first day of the year, so it must be significant. Except that it has happened on the first days of many years in the past — and a few other days besides. The visitor looks at my bookshelves and asks, ‘Have you read all these books?’ When I was younger, I always assumed the question was a sign of illiteracy, and asked by someone who had never read a book in his life.
Now, older and wiser, and importantly, more tolerant, I merely look away and pretend I haven’t heard the question. It has become a minor irritant, no more, like finding that one side of the shoe lace is longer than the other, or that the important-looking letter that arrived by courier is only asking for donations for some hare-brained scheme.
The math is simple. If I live to be a 100, and read a single book fully every day of my life till then, I would still not have read all the books on my shelves. In a 70-year period reading a book a day, we would complete just over 25,000 books, which, according to the philosopher and writer Umberto Eco is ‘a trifle’.
Eco had between thirty and forty-thousand books in his collection. He recoiled when anyone asked him the ‘have you read everything…’ question, and many potential friendships were nipped in the bud thus.
‘Unread books are much more valuable than read ones,’ explained Nassim Taleb, using Eco’s library as an example in The Black Swan. He called the unread books the ‘antilibrary’. Eco reacted because he thought his visitor was somehow castigating him for showing off the floor-to-ceiling collection. But in fact it was a sign of both a greater acquisition of knowledge as well as a greater thirst for it. As Taleb says, ‘the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books.’
All of which is wonderful. I possess neither Eco’s range of books nor his vast spread of knowledge and original thinking, but I love the concept of the antilibrary, and will pretend that Taleb’s explanation applies to me as well. It is some consolation for the panicky feeling all of us get occasionally: ‘So much to do (in this case, read), and so little time.’
But how do I introduce it into the conversation when someone asks, ‘have you read etc..’ without sounding pretentious? Perhaps I should say, ‘these books aren’t for reading. They are merely decoration.’ The visitor will take it as confirmation that I buy books merely to show off (which is not a bad thing by the way — it is better than buying French perfumes to show off). And they will go away satisfied.
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