Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Anti-Library

My esteemed colleague, the The Whited Sepulchre, had a post the other day that continued a chain of discussion around the concept of the Anti-Library: the books you own that you haven't read. The beginning of this was a quote from the The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb:

    Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as (you can possibly afford 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.
I'll let you read his post to get the background (why bother with my mangled summary when you can go there and see it yourself). After listing his own favorite unread books, he invited several folks (including me) to reveal their anti-library.

My unread books fall into the following broad categories:
  • Tech/Computer books I use as reference material but don't read cover to cover
  • Books I start but get distracted from midway through
  • Books I buy and intend to read someday
  • Books that belong to the spousal companion but look vaguely interesting
Here's my five:
  • CSS: The Definitive Guide, by Eric A. Meyer. Is it sick to love a web design book? Not if it's from O'Reilly, publisher of what is arguably the best series of technology books in print. CSS (cascading stylesheets) allow you to peel away the presentation layer from web pages and control the look and feel with surgical precision. I'm a designer turned web geek and this book is the best I've ever read.

  • V, by Thomas Pynchon. Considered by many to be one of our greatest contemporary authors, Pynchon was once a technical writer for Boeing. When I was in college, Gravity's Rainbow was a cult favorite. I picked up a copy of V, one of his first novels, at Half-Price Books, along with The Crying of Lot 49 (also unread).

  • The Story of Civilization, by Will and Ariel Durant. I got this as a Book of the Month Club premium 30 years ago and have read the first four of the eleven volumes. Started when I had much more control over my free time. Someday I'll finish, I swear.

  • The Baroque Cycle, by Neal Stephenson. Reading Stephenson's Cryptonomicon was what inspired me to finally start my own (as yet unpublished) novel. The Baroque Cycle is an immense science fiction tale set in 17th and 18th century Europe and features such characters as Isaac Newton, Samuel Pepys, Gottfried Leibniz. The original hardback came out as 3 volumes; the paperback version was released as 8 volumes (same story, just divided differently). Enjoyable, but a lot of book.

  • Buddha, by Osamu Tezuka. An epic tale of the holy-man's life told in an 8 volume manga by one of the giants of the medium. I've picked up about 4 out of the 8 in hardback. Though I've read a couple of these out of sequence in the past, I'm waiting until I can grab all 8 before I read it straight through. For those who are not familiar with Osamu Tezuka, he's the artist and author of Astroboy (I've got about 8 of the 20+ books) and other manga classics.
This, it goes without saying, barely scratches the surface, but I thought it gave an overview of the range of stuff I haven't read but want to.


The Whited Sepulchre said...

All interesting and eclecting, as expected. Thanks for participating.

Can you imagine how a Pynchon technical manual must have been like? And does Boeing have any old first editions?

Dr Ralph said...

A Pynchon tech manual? It boggles the imagination. Believe me, I've read enough techical books to say that even in these normally dry tomes the author's personality (or lack thereof) is impossible to conceal.

T. Feasor said...

There is one surviving article from Pynchon's time at Boeing:

Not my favorite thing he's written, but you can sense him under there somewhere!

Dr Ralph said...

T. Feasor - What a great post! Despite the dry subject matter it was more fascinating reading than many a poorly-written novel I've laid aside in disgust.

Thanks for the link!

Dan Brekke said...

I pride myself on knowing something about what's inside each of the books we have in the house. Piles and piles of them, the great majority of them unread.

One thing that's started to happen more and more often: I pick up a book like Hampton Sides's "Blood and Thunder" and find myself revolted by the inept storytelling, cumbersome writing and thin research.

Dr Ralph said...

Dan! Always a pleasure to hear from you, sir.

The spousal companion, who is a voracious reader and the most thorough and fearsome editor I know, often comments on how poorly edited a lot of contemporary books are.

I can assure you, despite any other failings in my as-yet unpublished novel, no one will ever be able to fault the editing of it.