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The Beauty of the Unknown


It’s summer time – my favourite time for reading devouring some good books I have collected during the past few years. I have been musing lately about my pretty odd habit of incessantly acquiring new books while lacking the time to read them all… I especially love to go to antiquarian/secondhand bookshops where I enjoy searching and browsing the books in a pleasant atmosphere redolent with the smell of old books. It is not that I am a passionate collector of old and rare books for my private library; I just enjoy getting the books (literature or non-fiction) I can read for pleasure, or I can explore later and satisfy my insatiable curiosity and desire for learning.

There is no word in Serbian (or English) which can describe the piles of unread books (in my flat) so well as a lovely Japanese word “Tsundoku” which means “buying books and letting them pile up unread.”

“Antilibrary” n. (A person’s collection of unread books) is another very interesting word with a similar meaning I have come across lately reading the great article on Maria Popova’s blog.

“[A] private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. 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.”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan, Random House, April 17, 2007

Umberto Eco, a great Italian writer and scholar, wanted to point out by his pithy comment (“Read books are far less valuable than unread ones”) that unread books were more important to him as a research tool. In his essay “Borges and My Anxiety of Influence,” U. Eco suggests that a large personal library is “not just a place to keep books one has already read but primarily a deposit for books to be read at some future date, when one feels the need to read them” and that “between the moment when the book first came to us and the moment we opened it … you realize that even that book you had not read was still part of your mental heritage and perhaps influenced you profoundly.”

It is true that the more we know the larger are the rows of unread books in our library. If the unread books in our personal library are a symbolic representation of our unknowledge, then it is logical that the more we know, the larger our “unknowledge” will be. It may sound paradoxical to some people, but we tend to underestimate the value of what we don’t know and take what we do know too seriously. However, our incomplete/imperfect knowledge, or the things we are sure of, keep us from seeing and learning.

As you know Socratesa well-known Greek philosopher and a dominant figure in most of Plato’s dialogues, emerges as wise because he knows how little he knows. Socrates frequently accosts people in the marketplace and asks them to define what they mean by a concept that they think they understand. His questions reveal his interlocutors’ inability to get clear about definitions, and show that although these people think they know what they’re talking about, they clearly don’t.

“Socrates embraced poverty and, although youths of the city kept company with him and imitated him, Socrates adamantly insisted he was not a teacher (Plato, Apology 33a-b) and refused all his life to take money for what he did. The strangeness of this behavior is mitigated by the image then current of teachers and students: teachers were viewed as pitchers pouring their contents into the empty cups that were the students. Because Socrates was no transmitter of information that others were passively to receive, he resists the comparison to teachers. Rather, he helped others recognize on their own what is real, true, and good (Plato, MenoTheaetetus) – a new, and thus suspect, approach to education. He was known for confusing, stinging and stunning his conversation partners into the unpleasant experience of realizing their own ignorance, a state sometimes superseded by genuine intellectual curiosity.” 

I’m wondering whether we could say for most 21st century teachers that they are NOT “as pitchers pouring their contents into the empty cups that are the students.” 

I am also wondering whether 21st century teaching and learning:

  • value the intellectual curiosity and skeptical reasoning
  • try to address students’ misconceptions about learning/teaching by explaining to them that they should be more responsible for their own learning, and that memorizing pieces of content, definitions and various data in order to pass the test is not real learning
  • make an attempt not to treat knowledge as a possession, a self-esteem enhancement device, or “an ornament that allows us to rise in the pecking order”
  • focus on “unknowledge” and “antilibrary” (unread books) more than on the read ones, and, above all,
  • appreciate the beauty of the unknown and the likelihood of surprises (much more than “our incomplete, imperfect, infinitesimal-in-absolute-terms” knowledge)

Thanks for reading my post. I hope it was interesting 🙂



About ljiljana havran

English language teacher (General & Aviation English), passionate about learning and teaching. Curious, adventurous, a lifelong learner. Love: good books, music, lots of dance.

3 responses »

  1. Ha ha we’re so much alike in this, Ma’am: I buy lots and lots of books every month, but I never get the time to read any of them. Lol.


    • ljiljana havran

      Thanks for your lovely comment, Tesal. 🙂

      I know that you love books and poetry. I enjoyed reading “Poetry with Pleasure” (a beautiful collection of poems written in the English language) today, and this short poem has been ringing in my ears for hours:

      “The Secret Sits” by Robert Frost

      We dance round in a ring and suppose,
      But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.

      Liked by 1 person


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