Sustainable Reading – Antilibrary requires no apology.

The Paul Holdengraber tweet came into my feed because it was liked by Frankie Boyle a few days ago. The original Nassim Nicholas Taleb post quoting the Umberto Eco reference I’d seen last year. It made my day, decade even, because Frankie, Taleb and Eco are each really high on the list of serious contributors to what I’m banging on about here on @Psybertron. Having all three converge in one tweet, was an “alignment of the stars”.

So with apologies to all the wonderful writers of books I may never get round to reading, here’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.

I’ve been a fan of Eco as an intellectual writer since I was first aware of The Name of the Rose, and as a result I’ve read much of his work in the last decade or so. To put that in context, you need to be aware that despite now being over sixty, I’m a “born again” reader since only the turn of the millennium, since 9/11 in practice. For the previous forty-odd years I was a technology engineering geek who’d barely read anything other than a work-related manual or the occasional popular science best-seller.

Prior to that I’d developed plenty of doubts and clues that real life, as we lived, managed and governed it, was so much more ambiguous than we presented it to each other, and counter-intuitive, positively weird if not downright perverse. I first noticed the concerns enough to articulate them when I did a Master’s course and research dissertation a decade earlier, but it didn’t blossom until my own sons’ self-motivated reading (Douglas Adams and more) and 9/11 started the explosion of blogging, social media and on-line accessible writing generally.

Since starting the blogging project my reading knows few bounds. Still, for preference, in printed book form despite wider electronic access and not limited to the Great Books of literature, philosophy of science and epistemology, and especially any writings that combine these. I’ve used Eco as the yardstick to compare other modern writers.

Frankie Boyle’s work I’ve known since he rose to fame as a stand-up and TV comic but it’s fair to say I hadn’t appreciated how intelligent his wit was until he moved from his column in The Sun to writing for The Guardian. Me, an intellectual snob – surely not? He’s become the archetypal “Court Jester” for me. The person who’s earned the right to be as acerbically cutting, rude and offensively cruel in his ridicule of public figures as anyone can be. Firstly, because his wit really is sharply targeted and hilarious and secondly, because his understanding and analysis is so intelligently nuanced through all that.

Nicholas Nassim Taleb I knew only by second-hand repute of his Black Swan / Antifragile work until I started to notice his ruthless comments on twitter, hacking off at the knees any “Intellectual Yet Idiot” who couldn’t show they’d done their statistics homework before passing comment in public. I followed without daring to comment for quite some time. Then I noticed, vaguely recalled I suspect, that it had been he who made himself unpopular by debating against the four horsemen and their hangers-on in the science vs religion debates. I realised here was a fellow traveller in the search for something better than the pale excuse that passes for objective rationality in current public discourse. IYI says it.

Now, imagine my surprise when Taleb posted the Eco Antilibrary anecdote above, quoting from his own Black Swan. It was at that point, just last year that I decided I had to do my Taleb homework reading. As well as Black Swan and Antifragile, his Real World Risk Institute and any number of on-line research projects demand attention, even if the technical level of the statistics of probability would stretch the understanding of even the best professional scientists. No, not you, Mr Pinker. At a technical symbolic level I doubt I understand 10% of what Taleb writes, but what he says always rings true and always fearless with the power of Fuck You in the right hands.

The Antilibrary concept had certainly rung true for me with Eco before.

The reality is that, when you read a lot of books and papers with a purpose in mind, as I’ve been doing for over fifteen years now, it is ultimately unsustainable. Since every read (book or blog post long-read or micro-blog tweet) contains a minimum of two or more new reads to follow-up, then your un-read reading list grows exponentially, and obviously faster than you could ever read it at some point. Too much to read, too little time, someone else said.

However unavoidable the self-inflicted guilt feels, at some point you have to write instead of reading. Some successful writers needed to hit the buffers of a mental breakdown before they got professional psychiatric advice to stop reading and start writing. It’s no doubt why research degrees have time limits for delivery of the necessary writing.

Eco’s antilibrary is the antidote to this problem. A good library is full of unread books, that’s the point – to have living things to read, not simply dead things you’ve finished reading. Unread books are no longer a source of guilt. Both my library and antilibrary are continuing to expand and evolve nicely, thank you.

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