This month’s topic was all researched and ready to be written, even though I was finding it hard to line things up in an interesting manner. Then I happened on a tweet (quoted below) and decided to write about what that brought to mind, and ended up going more personal than usual at the same time.
A French gentleman who possessed a large personal library was asked a too-familiar question by a visitor to his home. A question so often posed to those who own a lot of books. — “And have you read them all?” But this wise collector turned to his visitor with an astonished look and simply replied: “No, and I haven’t drunk all the wine in my cellar either.”
The point was made at once. His books were like his prized bottles, waiting for the moment he chose to open them; there for his pleasure according to his own timing. After all, what good would wine cellar of empty bottles be to him? Or a library of books already completed?
It also reminds me of getting rid of the question “where do you work” and replacing it with “what are you working on / spending time on / interested in.” Better conversations.
I love that! A new way of seeing what I’m already doing but also the continuation of something I’ve been easing into.
All my life I’ve had bookcases and libraries close by. My parents had some full bookcases downstairs and I have fond memories of wandering about the books and leafing through the encyclopedia or the National Geographics (the one magazine shelved with the books).
In high school, which was in part an old catholic school that looked (kind of) like a castle, the library was in a former chapel, with stained glass window, vaulted ceiling, and a mezzanine formerly for the organ. It was on the highest floor our grades had access to, and far from the common room. There was also an old-school natural history museum in the “tower,” with rock collections, stuffed animals, skeletons, etc. Too bad Harry Potter novels didn’t exist in those days, that would have been a good match!
The closest public library was a few blocks down the road from school. It was installed in a former bank, with the kids’ section up a winding staircase and the archive / large format books in an almost medieval-like rock basement with nooks at each window, opening high up the wall and looking out through a slit at ground level. That’s where I poured over the big Viollet-Le-duc books, looking inch by inch at the architectural plans of French castles. The bus I could take to get home was every 30 or 45 minutes but I would often skip the first packed one, to walk to the public library, grab some books and wait for the next one, which conveniently had a stop just in front. We were limited to six book at a time but the system was manual back then so I often cheated and had 10-20 books piled at home.
Nowadays, our home office is too small for two people, so after months of pandemic, and likely more to come, we’ve just setup a table in a nook-ish corner of the living room, abutting one of the bookcases and with a row of unreads or currently reading titles lined-up. As I write this morning, behind my laptop and coffee, I see Keller Easterling, Donna Haraway, Mackenzie Wark, Donella H. Meadowns, Richard Powers, Thomas More, Nick Srnicek, Nicolas Nova, Fred Scharmen, HDL, Lao Tzu by Le Guin, and Scott Smith.
If I turn left I see one each of my The Alpine Review, a few design books, Champignac at my elbow. Higher up my Hemingways and Murakamis, further left Gibsons, Doctorows, Mitchells and Eggers. It’s less practical of a space, but I already love this working from a corner amongst rows of books.
Ok, sorry for the holiday-period-induced trip down memory lane but all of that to say that my books have always moved me and with me, and although I have given away boxes of them through the years, I still have a collection of some I wouldn’t want to part with and might (and sometimes do) revisit or like to have close at hand for some obscure outboard brain vibes or something like a calming presence, but also some enjoyable reads which I could do without but keep holding on to.
Recently I’ve been considering a “one in, one out” policy for paper books. I’ve also seen a few people talk about buying the paper version when the ebook proved especially great, an artefact to keep with them, perhaps never to be read itself. Again, for that obscure outboard brain and calming presence, or maybe as protection from programmed obsolescence.
Flips & Flops
Going back to that quote about the book cellar, I’m thinking that keeping the best ones, having an even more liberal habit of buying, and giving away, while introducing a kind of mini “Sloan flip-flop.” Is probably my way forward. Actual flip-flop:
- Carve a statue out of stone. PHYSICAL
- Digitize your statue with a 3D scanner. DIGITAL
- Make some edits. Shrink it down. Add wings. STILL DIGITAL
- Print the edited sculpture in plastic with a 3D printer. PHYSICAL AGAIN
Mini flip or flop: read book in ebook form, find great value or enjoyment, buy it in physical form (and review to carry potentially carry over most salient notes and highlights?). Give or sell a paper book you don’t wish to keep, but find the ebook to keep some kind of archive.
So not really flip-flops but flips or flops according to your enjoyment of the work and under which form you wish to keep it around.
That cellar image again; piling the recommendations and the curiosity findings, whatever the timeline for actually reading them, making sure I’m able to revisit the “taste” of favourites, and giving out the inconclusive experiments.
This cellar attitude is also adjacent to the antilibrary. Constructing not the library of things you’ve read but rather the collection of what you want to learn about. As Anne-Laure Le Cunff puts it, via Umberto Eco’s thinking related in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swan:
“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.” […]
By expanding our awareness of unknown unknowns, an antilibrary may even be an antidote to the Dunning–Kruger effect, where we tend to overestimate the extent of our knowledge. Whether in a private or a public library, being surrounded by books we haven’t read yet—in the case of Umberto Eco, too many books to read in a lifetime—is a humbling experience.
Do not expect the proportion of unread books to decrease. While there is no perfect proportion, the more you read, the more you will expand your perimeter of knowledge, and the more unread books will be added to your antilibrary. It is not a bad thing, it means you are progressively turning unknown unknowns into known unknowns. […]
Remember that knowledge is a process, not a possession.
I’d caveat this by mentioning the library as conversation starter (perhaps you’ll have better conversations when at least one person involved has read the book?), and as teaching by example. As in, your kids can live surrounded by books and know that they are not just decorations, something a too “anti” library might look like. It worked for me as a kid, and is working for our incessantly reading son who says he’s had a bad day when he didn’t get to read in school.
I’m also thinking back to Willshire’s Information is light, not liquid which I quite like:
If we shift our thinking as information as the light, not liquid, we can begin to question every piece of information we see, understanding its true nature; it is fleeting, hard to perceive, and transitory, rather than solid, permanent and additive.
But I’ll also keep the liquid metaphor around, especially “information moving like water,” because this going from paper book to ebook is also part of a swirling of information in other forms. Notes and highlights travelling out of the book, aggregating or condensing as new ideas, digital information solidified in new supports like magazines, zines, or new books deeply informed by the notes, highlights, and insights constructed from dozens of other sources—see for example my friend Alex’s fun short videos where she’s showing some of the books that went into the writing of her own latest.
Perhaps books, and information in general, are neither light or liquid, but simply opportunities for hybrids, mutations, for the evolution of our collective and personal knowledge?
Knowledge work happens between these various forms, and we are constantly grasping at how best to write, track, remix, rethink what we watch, listen to, and read. Paper books, by their physicality, and ebooks, by Amazon’s dominating and stagnating Kindle, can’t be incorporated as fluidly as we might like. It’s a shame that not only do we have the analog-digital divide to contend with but also that even digital interchange is so badly broken, on purpose, by Amazon and insufficient interoperability from everyone else.
Beyond the nice image of the personal library as book cellar, I always find myself circling back to the fact that to grasp and make use of what we know, we must still fall back to incomplete metaphors and to each our own simple or Rube Goldbergian systems of annotations, highlights, notes, and their processing. We can collect what we don't know, but still struggle with turning that into knowledge and wisdom.