The indispensability of book stacks

I loved being surrounded by stacks of books as a kid.

Every book represented so much possibility – from hours of juicy indulgence in the most riveting stories to the descriptions of our most celebrated discoveries. We are a species whose only crowning glory is to be able to sit in one place and send our brains on journeys across faraway worlds. And when we do, books are often our vehicles.

Sections in libraries help us appreciate the breadth and depth of each subject that we have learnt about and documented across centuries. This is as true of the ancient discipline of physics, as it is for the modern field of computer science. Each of these shelves are growing at rates faster than our minds can fathom.

At the same time, all of those massive stacks of books whisper something unpleasant as we pass by them. They reminds us of our mortality – that a passing glimpse of an entire section of a library is all the books we can ever hope to read in our lifetime.

In recent times, all our collections are turning digital. Digital is convenient. My Kindle travels with me wherever I go, from a trip to a lake nearby to long-haul flights. It is marvellous that every book that I ever wish to read can fit within the dimensions of the smallest notebook I used in kindergarten. A thumb drive can hold the information contained in entire libraries. I have shifted to e-books so definitively, that I no longer have a library of physical books.

However, holding a thumb drive within the clasp of my fingers cannot replicate how I feel as I walk through the shelves of a library. Physical books serve an irreplaceable function besides exciting our senses of touch and smell. They always remind us about how all of our learning is but a grain of sand on the shores of an ocean.

And that is why every modern digital household must make space for a library. But not one where we merely stock the books we have read. As Nicholas Taleb mentions, an anti-library, the part of our library that holds books that we’ve not yet read is more important than the section filled with books we have already read and mastered.

A library must not be a tool to boost our ego. It must, rather, fuel our curiosity while reinforcing our humility. And that function is served a lot better by small stack of books than a hard-disk with a collection of a hundred libraries.

Further reading: Umberto Eco’s Antilibrary: Why Unread Books Are More Valuable to Our Lives than Read Ones – Brain Pickings

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