All the Knowledge in the World: Reflections on Eco’s Library

I was on a book tour in Italy recently. In an attempt to brush up my Italian beforehand, I watched, on youtube, interviews with Primo Levi, Italo Calvino, Stefano Benni, Orianna Fallaci, and Umberto Eco. Listening to Eco, I was reminded of his famous library, which contained 30,000 books. His home was described by Lila Azam Zanganeh in The Paris Review as “a labyrinth of corridors lined with bookcases that reach all the way up to extraordinarily high ceilings.”

Eco’s visitors would unfailingly marvel at the books and ask him, “Have you read all of these?” Eco would then deadpan: “No, these are the ones I have to read by the end of the month. I keep the others in my office.”

Image from

The point is that a library full of unread books holds boundless potential (a word rooted in potentia: power). It contains all of the knowledge yet to be claimed by the owner, a trove of imaginative and worldly possibility.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, writes that “a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones” and goes on to describe a collection of unread books as an antilibrary.*

My own antilibrary is a wish-list of all the things I want to know about. It includes books on opera, the Sri Lankan civil war, microtrends, and ecological intelligence; it has fat tomes about the Civil Rights movement and Renaissance sculpture, and Russian novels you could build houses with; it has skinny chapbooks of modernist poetry, biographies of writers and actors, and obscure philosophical tracts by long-dead Europeans.

I’ve read about 5% of the books I own. And that’s being generous. Some were given to me. Some I bought after browsing for two minutes. Others I bought because I liked the title or because I couldn’t live without a book with such beautiful binding. Yet others I acquired because some kind of future-me sees himself as a 19th century-style Man of Letters, with enough learning to pontificate on everything.

Apart from my family, my library is probably my greatest pleasure. The idea of so many masterpieces and so much access to wisdom provides a never-ending solace for all of life’s woes. My books are my balm. I know I won’t read most of them from cover to cover and I don’t care. They are there, like a beacon in the darkness, to help me find my way.

Photo by Jo Lutz for Silver City Daily Press

*A blog post on quotes Taleb more extensively on this topic.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. I love this JJ. Thank you. I feel exactly the same way. I know that others have despaired when my book piles have crept into ‘common spaces’ over the years. I left my parents’ home decades ago, stopped sharing flats and houses with students and colleagues when I got married … and I’ve finally managed to get rid of my kids. Hallelujah! Whole sections of my library are now free to follow me about the house wherever I decide to wander, settling in or staying with me when I move on. Just knowing they’re there is therapeutic.


    1. JJ Wilson says:

      Thank you, Katherine! So we have something else in common. Always good to hear from another book tragic. 🙂


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