The beauty of knowledge is it makes you aware of your own ignorance. The more you learn, broadly speaking, the more ignorant you feel.
This mechanism, called the Dunning-Kruger effect (although isn’t it a clinical re-statement of the ancient Delphic observation, that Socrates was the wisest man because he knew he knew nothing?) presents itself most elegantly in the pursuit of literacy. The more I read, the more aware I become of how much I still need to read.
When I was a teenager or even a young man, this manifested as anxiety. I didn’t like the feeling of having not read a novel or poem someone else was referencing. Although I wouldn’t want to give the impression that all of my literary adventures were motivated by antagonistic disquiet, some were. I remember reading Crime and Punishment specifically so that, if asked whether I had read it, I could arrogantly reply, “of course.”
I don’t know exactly why I thought like this. Maybe a fear of exclusion – I might have imagined one day discovering a club of fellow literature-lovers who would bar me entry for the crime of having never read Turgenev. Lots of young men feel they have something to prove, and even if it’s a declaration of intellectual rather than physical value it can cause this kind of idiocy. Perhaps on some level I wanted to be a prodigy, even though I wasn’t one by most reasonable measures. But it could also have been unconscious resistance to Dunning-Kruger, a confusion caused by feeling dumber, not cleverer, book by book.
I can’t remember when it was that I encountered Umberto Eco’s explanation that his library of near-Babelian dimensions consisted mainly of books he hadn’t read – certainly, I was already aware of it by the time I read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “antilibrary” description in The Black Swan. But it provided a balm – if a great scholar like Eco was unconcerned living alongside all those unopened books, then why should I be? F. Scott Fitzgerald lets you know what he thinks of his titular character’s intellectual pretences when Nick notices most of the books in Jay Gatsby’s library have pristine spines. Eco, or Taleb, might deduce Gatsby realises a personal library is a research tool, whereas we conclude the opposite – Gatsby is vain and unsophisticated.
Now, I experience a genuine elation in having not read something – especially if the work in question is a recognised classic. Coming back to Dostoevsky, I recently realised I had never read The Idiot, so further pleasures from the novelist who thrilled me at 17 await me still. Likewise, I have all of Proust before me. Robert Coover has inexplicably escaped my attentions. Same with Hermann Broch, Heinrich Böll, William Gaddis, Robert Musil, Georges Bernanos, and most of Andre Gide. Bruno Schulz! Dion Buzzatti! Kafka’s Amerika!
Once upon a time, I would not have been able to admit to these omissions. Now, it’s simply an acknowledgement that there are probably* more great books than one can read in a lifetime – which, as absurdists know, doesn’t mean the attempt might not itself have value.
*Somewhere in my library, minuscule in comparison to Eco’s, I have a George Steiner essay in which he almost cheerfully lists the major writers he knows he will never read. For now, that’s a step too far for me.