There are many intellectual aspirins in Oliver Burkeman’s weekly, ‘This column will save your life’, in the Saturday edition of The Guardian. The column ‘What unread books can teach us’ is particularly pertinent to the budding researcher.
In it Burkeman, drawing on observations by the writers Umberto Eco and Nassim Taleb, defends the tendency of writers, and indeed academics, to surround themselves with groaning shelves of books, many of which they will never read. While some assume that this is simply showing off, Umberto Eco points out that books are a research tool, and like any good toolbox our shelves should be filled not only with those we will use on a daily basis, but others which may serve very particular but no less important function at some point in the future. Similarly Taleb argues that the real aim of a personal library should be to fill it with the books you have not read, rather than those you have. According to Burkeman, Taleb advises that your bookshelves should contain ‘as much of what you do not know’ as finances allow. There is a simple logic to this. If we assume that there is no way that we will ever be able to read everything, then there is always more to be learnt from the books that we haven’t read than from the relatively small number that we have. As Burkeman observes ‘unread books are where the action is.’
However, Burkeman’s column also contains a warning from Eco that we should not assume that accumulating unread work is the same as accumulating knowledge. Eco refers to this as ‘the alibi of photocopies’. By this Eco identified a practice which is surely familiar to all of us. That by the simple act of photocopying or printing a book chapter or journal article we sometimes, perhaps often, assume that we have read it and internalised it.
It is important to remember that accumulating data, whether that is books, articles or research data, is not the same as having read or analysed it. The pile of books and journal articles sitting on the corner of your desk does not constitute research. Research is what begins to happen when you read them. Moreover, as Burkeman points out, Eco was writing about the alibi of photocopies in the mid-1970s. Developments in information technology have significantly expanded our capacity to accumulate unread texts, but have had little impact on our capacity to read them. There is then real value in unread books, as long as we don’t make the mistake of assuming that we’ve read them.