In praise of the antilibrary

from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2007):

The writer Umberto 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 that 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. 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.

Why not be, rather, fully human?

Schönberg, preface to the first edition, Harmonielehre, 1911, translated by Roy E. Carter; on searching for the sake of searching, cf. Walker Percy:

This book I have learned from my pupils.

In my teaching I never sought merely ‘to tell the pupil what I know’. Better to tell him what he did not know. Yet that was not my chief aim either, although it was reason enough for me to devise something new for each pupil. I labored rather to show him the nature of the matter from the ground up. Hence, I never imposed those fixed rules with which a pupil’s brain is so carefully tied up in knots. Everything was formulated as instructions that were no more binding upon the pupil than upon the teacher. If the pupil can do something better without the instructions, then let him do so. But the teacher must have the courage to admit his own mistakes. He does not have to pose as infallible, as one who knows all and never errs; he must rather be tireless, constantly searching, perhaps sometimes finding. Why pose as a demigod? Why not be, rather, fully human?

I have never tried to talk my pupils into believe me infallible—only a ‘Gesangsprofessor’ (professor of singing) finds that necessary. On the contrary, I have often risked saying something that I had later to retract; I have often risked giving instructions that, when applied, proved to be wrong and so had to be corrected. Perhaps my mistakes did not benefit the pupil, but they hardly caused him much harm. Indeed, the fact that I openly acknowledged them may have set him to thinking. As for myself, since the instructions I gave were untested products of my own thought, I was compelled by my errors, which were quickly exposed, to examine my instructions anew and improve their formulation.

This, then, is the way this book came into being. From the errors made by my pupils as a result of inadequate or wrong instructions I learned how to give the right instructions. Successful completion of assignments by the pupils established the soundness of my efforts without luring me into the fallacy that I had solve the problem definitively. And I think neither the pupils nor I have fared badly that way. Had I told them merely what I know, then they would have known just that and nothing more. As it is, they know perhaps even less. But they do know what matters: the search itself!

I hope my pupils will commit themselves to searching! Because they will know that one search for the sake of searching. That finding, which is indeed the goal, can easily put an end to striving.

Our age seeks many things. What is had found, however, is above all: comfort. Comfort, with all its implications, intrudes even into the world of ideas and makes us far more content than we should ever be. We understand today better than ever how to make life pleasant. We solve problems to remove an unpleasantness. But, how do we solve them? And what presumption, even to think we have really solved them! Here we can see most distinctly what the prerequisite of comfort is: superficiality. It is thus easy to have a ‘Weltanschauung’, a ‘philosophy’, if one contemplates only what is pleasant and gives no heed to the rest. The rest—which is just what matters most. In the light of the ‘rest’ these philosophies may very well seem made to order for those who hold to them, whereas, in that light, the tenets which constitute these philosophies are are seen to spring above all from the attempt at self-vindication. For, curiously enough, people of our time who formulate new laws of morality (or, even more to their liking, overthrow old ones) cannot live with guilt! Yet comfort does not consider self-discipline; and so guilt is either repudiated or transformed into virtue. Herein, for one who sees through it all, the recognition of guilt expresses itself as guilt. The thinker, who keeps on searching, does the opposite. He shows that there are problems and that they are unsolved. As does Strindberg: ‘Life makes everything ugly.’ Or Maeterlinck: ‘Three quarters of our brothers [are] condemned to misery.’ Or Weininger and all others who have thought earnestly.

Comfort as a philosophy of life! The least possible commotion, nothing shocking. Those who so love comfort will never seek where there is not definitely something to find.

There is a mechanical puzzle that consists of three small metal tubes of different diameters sealed in a glass-covered box. The problem is to get the smaller tubes inside the larger. Now one can try to do it methodically; then it usually takes quite a long time. But it can also be done another way. One can just shake the box at random until the tubes are inside one another. Does that happen by chance? It looks that way, but I don’t think so. For an idea lurks behind this method. Namely, that movement alone can succeed where deliberation fails. Is it not the same with the learner? What does the teacher accomplish through methodology? At most, activity. If everything goes well! But things can also go badly, and then what he accomplishes is lethargy. Yet lethargy produces nothing. Only activity, movement is productive. Then why not start moving right away? But comfort!? Comfort avoids movement; it therefore does not take up the search.

Either [tentative, perhaps random] movement generates searching or else searching generates movement—one or the other way must be taken. It does not matter which. Only action, movement, produces what could truly be called education or culture (Bildung): namely, training (Ausbildung), discipline and cultivation (Durchbildung). The teacher who does not exert himself because he tells only ‘what he knows’ does not exert his pupils either. Action must start with the teacher himself; his unrest must infect the pupils. Then they will search as he does. Then he will not be disseminating education (Bildung), and that is good. For ‘education’ means today: to know something of everything without understanding anything at all. Yet, the sense of this beautiful word, Bildung, is entirely different; and, since the word now carries a derogatory connotation, it should be replaced by Ausbildung and Durchbildung.

It should be clear, then, that the teacher’s first task is to shake up the pupil thoroughly. When the resultant tumult subsides, everything will have presumably found its proper place.

Or it will never happen!

Energies and perseverances

Thomas Jefferson to Dr. John P. Emmet, May 2, 1826, discovered in Nathaniel Grossman, The Sheer Joy of Celestial Mechanics:

[…] consider that we do not expect our schools to turn out their alumni already on the pinnacles of their respective sciences; but only so far advanced in each as to be able to pursue them by themselves, and to become Newtons and Laplaces by energies and perseverances to be continued throughout life.

Weigh and consider

Francis Bacon, “Of Studies,” originally 1597, enlarged 1625:

Studies serve for delight, for ornament, and for ability. Their chief use for delight, is in privateness and retiring; for ornament, is in discourse; and for ability, is in the judgment, and disposition of business. For expert men can execute, and perhaps judge of particulars, one by one; but the general counsels, and the plots and marshalling of affairs, come best, from those that are learned. To spend too much time in studies is sloth; to use them too much for ornament, is affectation; to make judgment wholly by their rules, is the humor of a scholar. They perfect nature, and are perfected by experience: for natural abilities are like natural plants, that need proyning, by study; and studies themselves, do give forth directions too much at large, except they be bounded in by experience. Crafty men contemn studies, simple men admire them, and wise men use them; for they teach not their own use; but that is a wisdom without them, and above them, won by observation. Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. Some books also may be read by deputy, and extracts made of them by others; but that would be only in the less important arguments, and the meaner sort of books, else distilled books are like common distilled waters, flashy things. Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man. And therefore, if a man write little, he had need have a great memory; if he confer little, he had need have a present wit: and if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know, that he doth not. Histories make men wise; poets witty; the mathematics subtile; natural philosophy deep; moral grave; logic and rhetoric able to contend. Abeunt studia in mores. Nay, there is no stond or impediment in the wit, but may be wrought out by fit studies; like as diseases of the body, may have appropriate exercises. Bowling is good for the stone and reins; shooting for the lungs and breast; gentle walking for the stomach; riding for the head; and the like. So if a man’s wit be wandering, let him study the mathematics; for in demonstrations, if his wit be called away never so little, he must begin again. If his wit be not apt to distinguish or find differences, let him study the Schoolmen; for they are cymini sectores. If he be not apt to beat over matters, and to call up one thing to prove and illustrate another, let him study the lawyers’ cases. So every defect of the mind, may have a special receipt.

The shadow of lost knowledge

William Johnson Cory in Eton Reform II as adapted by George Lyttleton in writing to Rupert Hart-Davis, discovered in a piece by David Bromwich on free speech and the university:

At school you are engaged not so much in acquiring knowledge as in making mental efforts under criticism. A certain amount of knowledge you can indeed with average faculties acquire so as to retain; nor need you regret the hours you spent on much that is forgotten, for the shadow of lost knowledge at least protects you from many illusions. But you go to a great school not so much for knowledge as for arts and habits; for the habit of attention, for the art of expression, for the art of assuming at a moment’s notice a new intellectual position, for the art of entering quickly into another person’s thoughts, for the habit of submitting to censure and refutation, for the art of indicating assent or dissent in graduated terms, for the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy, for the art of working out what is possible in a given time, for taste, for discrimination, for mental courage, and for mental soberness.

The mind is assailed, as it were

Edward Thorndike, “Reading as Reasoning: A Study of Mistakes in Paragraph Reading,” The Journal of Educational Psychology, 1917:

Understanding a paragraph is like solving a problem in mathematics. It consists in selecting the right elements of the situation and putting them together in the right relations, and also with the right amount of weight or influence or force for each. The mind is assailed as it were by every word in the paragraph. It must select, repress, soften, emphasize, correlate and organize, all under the influence of the right mental set or purpose or demand.


It thus appears that reading an explanatory or argumentative paragraph in his text-books on geography or history or civics, and (though to a less degree) reading a narrative or description, involves the same sort of organization and analytic action of ideas as occur in thinking of supposedly higher sorts.


It appears likely, therefore, that many children fail in certain features of these subjects not because they have understood and remembered the facts and principles but have been unable to organize and use them; or because they have understood them but have been unable to remember them; but because they never understood them.

It appears likely also that a pupil may read fluently and feel that the series of words are arousing appropriate thoughts without really understanding the paragraph. Many of the children who made notable mistakes would probably have said that they understood the paragraph and, upon reading the questions on it, would have said that they understood them. In such cases the reader finds satisfying solutions of those problems which he does raise and so feels mentally adequate; but he raises only a few of the problems which should be raised and makes only a few of the judgments which he should make.

Too comfortable in his own skin

Arthur Krystal on Jacques Barzun and Lionel Trilling:

As students and instructors at Columbia they had only a nodding acquaintance. Barzun, tall, fair-haired, Gallically handsome, was self-assured and interested in history, theater, music, and detective stories. Trilling, shy, intense, on the short side, was keen on Freud, Marx, and American fiction. To a budding and brooding intellectual like Trilling, the young Barzun seemed too comfortable in his own skin; there was no angst, no alienation. “Such awareness as we first had of each other,” Trilling recalled, “was across a barrier which had about it something of a barricade.” Meanwhile, in Barzun’s eyes, Trilling seemed “content to do well, with little exertion, in what he liked and to stumble through the rest.” Upon learning they would be paired up, neither one jumped at the prospect.

The garden of letters

From the Phaedrus, 275d ff., circa 370 BC, translated by Harold N. Fowler:

Writing, Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing. And every word, when once it is written, is bandied about, alike among those who understand and those who have no interest in it, and it knows not to whom to speak or not to speak; when ill-treated or unjustly reviled it always needs its father to help it; for it has no power to protect or help itself.

You are quite right about that, too.

Now tell me; is there not another kind of speech, or word, which shows itself to be the legitimate brother of this bastard one, both in the manner of its begetting and in its better and more powerful nature?

What is this word and how is it begotten, as you say?

The word which is written with intelligence in the mind of the learner, which is able to defend itself and knows to whom it should speak, and before whom to be silent.

You mean the living and breathing word of him who knows, of which the written word may justly be called the image.

Exactly. Now tell me this. Would a sensible husbandman, who has seeds which he cares for and which he wishes to bear fruit, plant them with serious purpose in the heat of summer in some garden of Adonis, and delight in seeing them appear in beauty in eight days, or would he do that sort of thing, when he did it at all, only in play and for amusement? Would he not, when he was in earnest, follow the rules of husbandry, plant his seeds in fitting ground, and be pleased when those which he had sowed reached their perfection in the eighth month?

Yes, Socrates, he would, as you say, act in that way when in earnest and in the other way only for amusement.

And shall we suppose that he who has knowledge of the just and the good and beautiful has less sense about his seeds than the husbandman?

By no means.

Then he will not, when in earnest, write them in ink, sowing them through a pen with words which cannot defend themselves by argument and cannot teach the truth effectually.

No, at least, probably not.

No. The gardens of letters he will, it seems, plant for amusement, and will write, when he writes, to treasure up reminders for himself, when he comes to the forgetfulness of old age, and for others who follow the same path, and he will be pleased when he sees them putting forth tender leaves. When others engage in other amusements, refreshing themselves with banquets and kindred entertainments, he will pass the time in such pleasures as I have suggested.

A noble pastime, Socrates, and a contrast to those base pleasures, the pastime of the man who can find amusement in discourse, telling stories about justice, and the other subjects of which you speak.

Yes, Phaedrus, so it is; but, in my opinion, serious discourse about them is far nobler, when one employs the dialectic method and plants and sows in a fitting soul intelligent words which are able to help themselves and him who planted them, which are not fruitless, but yield seed from which there spring up in other minds other words capable of continuing the process for ever, and which make their possessor happy, to the farthest possible limit of human happiness.

Yes, that is far nobler.