Finding comfort in the books you have yet to read

Like many ministers and academics, I have a lot of books; by virtue of my vocation and work setting, I may even be on my way to acquiring a small library. Spread over two offices on campus and a study at home, it is sometimes a challenge to locate that one book that I really need, and I have not yet developed a reliable system for tracking them carefully. To everyone who looks around my office or study shelves, where books are stacked in double layers, and asks “have you read them all?”, I usually just say that they are my tools. Most have been read, several more than once, and many of them are opened regularly to assist in preparing lectures, addresses, sermons, articles, columns and other occasional writings.

That said, the number of books I own but have not yet read has started to grow somewhat alarmingly, and I have almost an entire bookcase of unread books at home which sits there evoking not just a small amount of guilt whenever I go into my study. Recently, however, I have begun to feel more at peace with my stack of unread books. Author and statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes, in his 2007 bestseller The Black Swan, that having unread books is a good thing and a sign of intelligence: “Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. … 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.”

An antilibrary! That must surely be the visual reminder of all the knowledge we have not yet acquired, all the stories that have not yet touched our lives, all the ideas that have not yet begun to challenge our way of thinking, all the perspectives that we have not yet considered, all the characters we have not yet come to know. It is a humbling thing to see what is yet to be learned, and of course herein lies the value of the university library, with its shelves and stacks and floors of books that remind us that our learning enterprise is never really complete. It is good to be humbled, to realize we do not know, and cannot know, everything that we would want to.

Knowledge is not simply information, but part of the apparatus that is used to gain wisdom. It is the intellectual form of our faith journey, perhaps – as the apostle Paul wrote, “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own.” He further notes, writing to the Philippian church “this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God.” We cannot know it all, but still we seek to learn more, to know more, to hold greater wisdom.

Wisdom is elusive, and true wisdom consists, in part, in realizing that we will never fully possess it, and must never stop trying. It is humbling, but in humility is the realization of our need for growth and development.

So I will continue to add books to my library, always with the intent of reading them and learning more. I will not be haunted but comforted by those many unread books that sit, invitingly and encouragingly, on my shelves, with the light shining tantalizingly on their titles through stained glass.

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