The Black Swan: read vs. unread books

by on February 25, 2007 at 7:16 am in Books | Permalink

Should your library consist mostly of read books, or of unread books?  The avid and loyal MR reader will already know we are adjusting for "number of books read" in posing this query.

If you own mostly read books, you use your library for reference and remembrance.  Your collection is like Proust’s madeleine.  If you own mostly unread books, your library yields exciting discovery but also lots of clunkers.  Each step to the shelf offers a chance to redefine your life and your loves in unexpected ways, or perhaps crashing disappointment.

My (small) personal library is virtually 100 percent already read books, plus Gone With the Wind and Shantaram, both of which I am saving up for long plane trips to distant climes.  But I think of my real library as the local public library, which is still mostly unread books.

If you are one of those Austrian economists who believes in the all-importance of unquantifiable Knightian uncertainty, I hope your shelves are full of unread books (we now, by the way, have the means to make this otherwise murky concept operational).  Otherwise you are livin’ a dirty, stinkin’ lie.  Karmic retribution will be swift and, yes, certain.

For further musings on this topic, see Nassim Taleb’s new The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, a stimulating look at surprise.


1 Amber February 25, 2007 at 8:52 am

I always have said that the shelf reflects the self.

2 eric February 25, 2007 at 9:43 am

ORLY? Don’t be shy, how do you measure Knightian uncertainty? Ref?

3 Alan Little February 25, 2007 at 11:21 am

I found Shantaram utterly amazing – congratulations on still having that ahead of you. I read most of it sitting on the balcony of a hotel in the Austrian Alps last summer getting over the aftereffects of a dose of flu, while my wife and son went off walking. Am currently greatly enjoying *Red Earth And Pouring Rain*, Vikram Chandra’s first, after I first heard of hm when you recommended *Sacred Games*. Thanks.

4 Chris February 25, 2007 at 12:53 pm

Nassim Taleb is definitely one of my favorites, but I just can’t seem to grasp his hatred of the field of economics. For such a sharp person, his arguments concerning the economics orthodoxy are largely empty.

Still, Fooled by Randomness and Dynamic Hedging are two definite classics.

5 Maestro February 25, 2007 at 4:35 pm

Um, not to sound clueless, but what does believing in Knightian uncertainty have to do with it? I realize it was said with tongue in cheek to some extent, but still, it seems a complete non sequitur to me.

6 Constant February 25, 2007 at 5:32 pm

“Should your library consist mostly of read books, or of unread books?”

Turn the “should” into “does” and I can answer that easily. Mostly unread.

Buying a book is a bit like bookmarking a webpage. Part of what you’re doing is making a note to yourself. If you buy to read, then “read this”, or if you buy because you might read, then “maybe read this”. Instead of buying the book you could create a list, constructing a “virtual library”.

I buy books intending to read them, and then typically (with exceptions) I don’t get around to reading them. I have a library now of books that are pretty interesting and that I don’t regret buying since I have a feeling I’ll be reading them at some point, but however interesting they are, I’m usually marginally more interested new books (i.e., new to me). Roughly speaking, my reading list is “last in, first out”.

If someone else buys me a book, then it lingers near the front of the “last in, first out” set of books. I feel a duty to read it, enough of a duty that I count it as something that I should read after I read one or two other books. But it tends to say in the number two or three spot of my reading list, however many books I read.

7 liberty February 25, 2007 at 6:53 pm

Yes, I second what Constant says as well except that I sadly almost never books lent or given me. They just rarely strike me as interesting as those I pick out for myself – I have the best taste in the world of course!

8 nassim February 25, 2007 at 7:58 pm

Je ne peux pas écrire dans une langue vivante le dimanche (pour des raisons sentimentales) mais vous n’aurez pas de problèmes grâce au fameux “google translator”
L’idée de la bibliothèque est ici.

Ciao tutti.

9 knackeredhack February 26, 2007 at 1:07 pm

“Nassim Taleb is definitely one of my favorites, but I just can’t seem to grasp his hatred of the field of economics.”

I just can’t grasp why having read Taleb one would continue in the field of mainstream economics. But I guess that is the sunk cost bias ;-).

Also, I think the point Taleb is making is that we think we are smarter than we really are. The more we are confronted with the knowledge we don’t have the humbler we might be about what we think we know about the real world.

That seems to be his problem with mainstream econ. It also seems to me to be a central indictment of much of the blogosphere, where posters and commenters are the more certain among the population, and I assume in Talebian terms the more dangerous.

But then again, I’m just not sure at all. Perhaps I should read more.

10 tndal June 28, 2008 at 1:53 am

“But then again, I’m just not sure at all. Perhaps I should read more.”
– knackeredhack

Taleb would likely tell you to read less. He does. For example he abjures newspapers. But _do_ read “The Black Swan”.

11 Anonymous October 22, 2008 at 10:05 pm
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