The endlessly brilliant Umberto Eco on infiniteness, order, and lists:
We have always been fascinated by infinite space, by the endless stars and by galaxies upon galaxies. How does a person feel when looking at the sky? He thinks that he doesn’t have enough tongues to describe what he sees. Nevertheless, people have never stopping describing the sky, simply listing what they see. Lovers are in the same position. They experience a deficiency of language, a lack of words to express their feelings. But do lovers ever stop trying to do so? They create lists: Your eyes are so beautiful, and so is your mouth, and your collarbone… One could go into great detail.
More on the quote by Umberto Eco that Jason Kottke posted yesterday and the pithy quote I was trying to remember in response. Su emailed me a few hours after the post went up and managed to track it down. The quote comes from Eco’s essay “How to Justify a Private Library” (available here on Google Books in full), part of his collection How to Travel with a Salmon and Other Essays:
In the past I adopted a tone of contemptuous sarcasm. “I haven’t read any of them; otherwise why would I keep them here?” But this is a dangerous answer and invites the obvious follow-up: “And where do you put them after you’ve read them?” The best answer is the one always used by Robert Leydi: “And more, dear sir, many more,” which freezes the adversary and plunges him into a state of awed admiration. But I find it merciless and angst-generating. “No, these are the ones I have to read by the end of the month. I keep the others in my office,” a reply that on the one hand suggests a sublime ergonomic strategy, and on the other leads the visitor to hasten the moment of his departure.
The gist of the quote, which is what I was trying to remember, is that Eco knew of three possible answers to the question about the scale of his library: 1) He’s read none of them. 2) He’s read all of them and more. 3) What’s unread is only what’s visible; what’s read is left to the imagination.
Taleb paraphrasing Umberto Eco:
Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. 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 allow 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.
I was trying to quote this bit of wisdom at dinner the other night and drew and utter blank about where I’d heard it. Thanks to Mr Kottke, as usual. (Also: Eco has another pithy quote about the volume of books in his library that I’ve forgotten. Anyone remember?)