Wednesday, August 22, 2007

From my 'Umberto Eco's Antilibrary'

One of the benefits of amassing more books than I could ever hope to read is discovering the gems that have been collecting dust for many years. I stumbled upon such a gem recently: Past Climates: Tree Thermometers, Commodities and People, by Leona Marshall Libby published in 1983. Don't remember where or when I picked it up, but am now glad that I did. This short book (completed in two evenings) has great descriptions of the scientific advantages of tree ring analysis in examining events that correspond with human history. The science is well known now (as it is almost a quarter century old), but is was fascinating to read the brief yet detailed history on the development of the requisite technologies as well as the mathematical applications to support the hypotheses. The book is not written for someone who wants the thorough history of the subject, but it does address the general question that I had when seeing the title: How can Tree Thermometers, Commodities and People be succesfully interwoven into a 142 page pub? A bonus was some new ideas that I can try using the Fourier transform in climate/commodity analysis (one of my research areas).

This gets to the title of this post. Readers of Taleb's The Black Swan are familiar with the term. Beneath the concept of the U.E. Antilibrary lies the notion that the true value in a personal library is not found in the idea that finished books are trophies to hang on the wall like bagged game; rather the real utility is in the unread books....those containing the knowledge not yet discovered by the owner. For years, my wife who is an avid reader as well (reads much more than me), just cringes when we are within eyesight of a bookstore because she knows that the result will be less shelfspace at home in a few hours. While I think that I have always respected and embraced the notion of the antilibrary, I haven't been able to articulate it into a satisfactory argument. Now after reading Taleb's discussion in Part One, maybe my viewpoint will carry some more weight.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps it is in that our antilibraries represent the person we would like to be (the one that has read those books) and the one we would be if only we weren't so busy being this person.

Each book, bought at a different time, is like one of those tree rings you mention - representing our state of aspiration at that time.

When we finally do read one of those books, it is a little graduation.

michael ferrari said...

@anom: agreed!

Matthew Cornell said...

Thanks for the thinking on this. I'm still wrapping my head around the idea. I'm like you: My anti-library is growing, and it *does* invoke a bit of unease - all that work to do! But I look at my purchases from the right (I believe) perspective: They're an investment, a resource for when the time comes for needing that knowledge. I know I can't know it all (which is a strength), and these books represent an act of faith - that my future self will need them some day. It's a kind of preparation for the unknown, I suppose...

Great stuff!