Why you should own more books than you can read

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A Japanese word that literally means “reading pile.”

However, it translates to more than that. It’s a habit.

It’s a tendency to buy books that you never end up reading. And you might think that’s not a good thing, but you’d be surprised.

There is beauty in a pile of books, stacked around your home, surrounding you like a warm blanket – even when you don’t read them.

How so?

It reminds you that you still have much to learn. That in life, there is always the next thing to discover, something more to unravel, and that there are always pages you can turn.

We are all guilty of this. We browse through a bookstore and buy a book that jumps at us, with every intention of reading it later. But life is just too busy. Life is too fast-paced. And sometimes, we barely have the inclination or the energy to read.

What we end up having is a stack of unread books, scattered around some corners, a reminder of our guilt and neglect.

Rest assured, there’s nothing to feel guilty about at all. You just have to look at it differently.

The power of having an “antilibrary”

Yes, there’s actually a word for it.

In his bestselling book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, author and statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues that an antilibrary is actually something that can benefit you.

The reality is, unread books have just as much value, maybe even more so than the books we’ve already read. 

Taleb sites legendary Italian writer, Umberto Eco as an example. The prolific writer famously owned a personal library, housing more than 30,000 books.

Did he read them all? Well, no.

But that wasn’t the point.

Many people were impressed by the number of books he owned. They thought that the staggering amount of literature he read was the reason why he was so knowledgeable and successful.

But the library was not built to feed his ego. In truth, Eco’s expansive library was a testament to quite the opposite – his humility about the things he didn’t know but craved to learn.

It constantly reminded him of his voracious desire for learning. It kept him curious, hungry, and passionate to know more.

And though you may not amass the same amount of books, that growing pile of unread literature in your shelves can still do the same for you.

As Taleb intones:

“A private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones.

“The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows 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.”

You may want to read every good book ever published. But even Eco, who had the strong desire to do so, admitted such a feat is impossible. He even calculated the number of books one could read in a lifetime. 25,200 books – if you read one every single day from ages 10 to 80.

We overestimate our knowledge but underestimate the things we do not know.

We live in a culture that prizes knowledge above everything else. Society has programmed us to believe that the more we know, the better our chances of success, the better our standing in life.

Taleb additionally writes:

“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.”

But it is your lack of knowledge that will push you towards success. It is your curiosity and the deep desire to know that changes your perspective, that fuels your motivation.

The most successful people in life are the ones who never want to stop learning.

It’s called the art of intellectual humility. The courage to admit, “I don’t know.”

And if your shelves contain more books you haven’t read than ones you have read, then you should be proud. For it means your thirst for knowledge is stronger than your desire to prove yourself knowledgable.

Those stacks of unread books should not guilt you. Instead, you should look at them as a reminder. You should cherish them like a bunch of old friends.

Because those books are not trophies of all that you have acquired. They are a sign of how much you still don’t know, how much more you could learn, and how much better you could still be. They are your beacons for potentiality.

And to be quite honest, that makes all the difference in the world.

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