In his book, The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb describes our relationship between books and knowledge using the legendary Italian writer Umberto Eco [1932-2016].
Nassim Taleb coins the word antilibrary, and he says an antilibrary is a library of books that you have not read. He says this not with a negative connotation or as a way to show off books, but to mean that a library of unread books is a reminder of how little we know and therefore should be humble.
This definition of the anti-library, the reminder to be humble became clear [again] to me yesterday when I started reading Debt by David Graeber. I am still making my way through the second chapter and I am already mind blown.
In the first chapter, he made me questions my pre-conceived notions about debt. And, in the half of second chapter so far, he has begun methodically taking apart the story we’ve been told about money evolving from the barter system.
After years of thinking about barter as the origin of money, I have begun to appreciate the flaws in this explanation brought to light by years of rigorous anthropological study.
Again, mind blown.
Here are some of the quotes from the book:
“Normally, when you challenge the conventional wisdom, that the current economic and political system is the only possible one, the first reaction you are likely to get is a demand for a detailed architectural blueprint of how an alternative system would work, down to the nature of its financial instruments, energy supplies, and policies of sewer maintenance. Next, you are likely to be asked for a detailed program of how this system will be brought into existence. Historically, this is ridiculous. When has social change ever happened according to someone’s blueprint? It’s not as if a small circle of visionaries in Renaissance Florence conceived of something they called “capitalism,” figured out the details of how the stock exchange and factories would someday work, and then put in place a program to bring their visions into reality. In fact, the idea is so absurd we might well ask ourselves how it ever occurred to us to imagine this is how change happens to begin.”
“Freuchen tells how one day, after coming home hungry from an unsuccessful walrus-hunting expedition, he found one of the successful hunters dropping off several hundred pounds of meat. He thanked him profusely. The man objected indignantly:
“Up in our country we are human!” said the hunter. “And since we are human we help each other. We don’t like to hear anybody say thanks for that. What I get today you may get tomorrow. Up here we say that by gifts one makes slaves and by whips one makes dogs.
… The refusal to calculate credits and debits can be found throughout the anthropological literature on egalitarian hunting societies. Rather than seeing himself as human because he could make economic calculations, the hunter insisted that being truly human meant refusing to make such calculations, refusing to measure or remember who had given what to whom, for the precise reason that doing so would inevitably create a world where we began “comparing power with power, measuring, calculating” and reducing each other to slaves or dogs through debt. It’s not that he, like untold millions of similar egalitarian spirits throughout history, was unaware that humans have a propensity to calculate. If he wasn’t aware of it, he could not have said what he did. Of course we have a propensity to calculate. We have all sorts of propensities. In any real-life situation, we have propensities that drive us in several different contradictory directions simultaneously. No one is more real than any other. The real question is which we take as the foundation of our humanity, and therefore, make the basis of our civilization.
“Thomas Jefferson, that owner of many slaves, chose to begin the Declaration of Independence by directly contradicting the moral basis of slavery, writing “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights …” thus undercutting simultaneously any argument that Africans were racially inferior, and also that they or their ancestors could ever have been justly and legally deprived of their freedom. In doing so, however, he did not propose some radically new conception of rights and liberties. Neither have subsequent political philosophers. For the most part, we’ve just kept the old ones, but with the word “not” inserted here and there. Most of our most precious rights and freedoms are a series of exceptions to an overall moral and legal framework that suggests we shouldn’t really have them in the first place.”
Debt by David Graeber is a special book thanks to the audacity of what it attempts and the elegance with which it delivers it.
A decade ago, I remember reading a note about reading by Robin Sharma that resonated. The idea [paraphrased] was:
“Somewhere out there is a book that will change your life. You just don’t know which. So, keep reading”
Books have changed my life multiple times over the years. And they have done so at a frequency that has been unmatched by any other source of learning.
This for me is the reason why the antilibrary as Nassim Taleb says is important. The more unread books you have in your library, the more humble you should be.