Halfway through 2019, faced with a mound of unread books so big I couldn’t get into the attic space, I decided to take action.
I’ve tried various approaches over the last few years: TBR challenges; book buying bans; book culls. They had only a minor effect on the overall stack of unread volumes. I needed something more strategic.
The result was this nine step game plan:
- Reframe The Issue
- Measure the Beast
- Set A Goal
- Remove ‘Slow Moving’ books
- Get Off The Fence
- Deal With New Stock
- Read The Books
- Repeat, Repeat, Repeat
You can read the details of what each step involves here.
Seven months have now elapsed since I came up with the concept so I thought it was time to give you all an update on how this has worked out (or not).
Beginning at The Beginning
It was easy to adopt a different frame of mind (step 1) was easy. Though I’ve occasionally moaned about how many books I own that I’ve never read, that’s me being somewhat disingenuous. The reality is that I don’t really see it as a big problem.
It’s like having my own bookshop. One that’s always open no matter what time of day or night I want to enter. And it has exactly the books I like to read – I know that because (with a few exceptions, I was the one who chose them). The other benefits? No standing in a queue waiting to pay or finding that the book I want is out of stock.
The remaining steps got progressively more challenging.
Compiling a complete list of every unread book was time consuming and messy. I ended up with an enormous pile of books on the floor. I wish I’d taken a photo of the chaos but I’d effectively barricaded myself in among the books – and of course my phone was out of reach.
It took most of the day to get everything documented into a spreadsheet (I admit I got distracted and started reading too many jacket descriptions).
The exercise was a revelation. I discovered several duplicates. I found books I didn’t know I’d bought. And books I looked at and thought “Why on earth did I buy this?”.
It was a painful process but I’m glad I did it because now, when I want a book to fit in with a themed reading event, I can just look at the spreadsheet instead of dismantling the bookcases to see what’s right at the back.
I ended up with a list of 301 books purchased before start of 2019, of which I’d owned 67 for more than 5 years. I don’t know which book is the oldest because I don’t remember when exactly I bought some of these – I just know it was before I started blogging in 2012 and keeping some kind of track on Goodreads of what I was buying.
My goal was to reduce the overall number by 20% (in other words, 60 books).
I didn’t make it.
By the end of 2019 my TBR had definitely come down. Just not as much as I had hoped.
I got it down to 264 which equates to a 12% reduction.
I could have got it down lower, probably even reaching the target number, if I’d also put a book buying ban in place. I didn’t, for the simple reason that I tried this in the past. I managed it for three months but then, as if to make up for lost time, went on a buying splurge.
This time around I just exercised restraint (or at least more than I had for several years). I was doing reasonably well until November came around. After a meet up of South Wales bookstagrammers I walked away with 13 new books to add to my shelves (I didn’t buy them – they were all donated by publishers). That wasn’t supposed to happen!
Even so, I’m counting this exercise as a success because it pushed me to read books I already owned, rather than buying even more. Some – like A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry and All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West – turned out to be the best books I read last year. It made me wonder why I hadn’t read them earlier.
I also discovered a quick way to judge whether to discard a book or keep it on my shelves.
I put all books that were ‘five years or older” into one section of the bookcase. Every few weeks I picked one at random and read the first few chapters (somewhere between 30 and 50 pages). If it didn’t capture my interest by then, it went straight into a bag to take to a National Trust second hand bookshop.
Don’t get me wrong; I still have a lot of unread books. The list of ‘five years or older’ of ‘old books’ has of course grown because I now have to add in everything I bought in 2014. The TBR monster is merely wounded, not slain.
My strategy isn’t without its challenges and its flaws. It does require will power on my part to read the older books not just the shiny new ones and to abandon books I’m not enjoying.
But overall it does seem to work .
So I’ll be repeating it again this year, with a target to reduce by a further 20% to end 2020 with 211 unread books. I’d love to think I could get it below that 200 mark but I’m being realistic.
Wish me luck!
The year is barely a week old and I’m already feeling I’m in catch up mode. I meant to share my 2020 plans well before now but it’s taken me until today to work out what exactly I want to focus on this year.
I’ve spent the last few days soul searching as well as reflecting on my experience over the last few years when I set specific goals for reading and blogging. And I’ve come to a few conclusions which are going to influence what I do this year.
The End of Challenges
The biggest decision is to stop doing reading challenges that involve making lists of titles to read. I love the process of creating the list but as soon as that’s done, and it’s time to actually read those chosen books, my interest in them completely fades away. Having a list to work through takes away the element of freedom.
Instead of being able to choose a book at random from my ‘owned but unread’ shelves or delve into something that caught my eye in the library, I’m ‘having’ to read one of the titles on my list. Just so that I can make some inroads into that challenge.
It’s why I’ve never completed a #20booksofsummer project. Even reducing the number to 15 this year didn’t work (though I came close). It’s also why it’s taken me longer than the target 5 years to get through the Classics Challenge and why, unbelievably, my Booker Prize project is unfinished seven years after it began.
Away With Lists
Lists are clearly not my thing. Neither are challenges that require me to read specific categories of books or numbers of books within a specified time period. Some of those I’ve been undertaking in recent years, like the Booker Prize project have been entirely self imposed. So I have only myself to blame for that!
There’s nothing wrong with the challenges themselves. Plenty of other bloggers and readers find them enjoyable and rewarding and, amazingly, have the ability to cope with several at the same time. It’s not the challenge that’s the issue; it’s me.
2020 will therefore be a year without challenges. I’ll finish the ones I’ve already started – I’ve come so far with most of them that it would be silly to stop now – but I won’t go looking for anything new. I want a year of relaxed, stress-free reading.
I’ve Started So I’ll Finish
Booker Prize Project: One more title to go and then I’ll have read (or attempted to read) every winner from 1969 to 2015. That’s 50 winners in total. Once I’ve read How Late It Was How Late by James Kelman, I’ll be done. I don’t regret having spent time with the Booker Prize but my interest in it as a literary prize has seriously waned in the last few years so I won’t be committing myself to reading any of the post 2015 winners.
Classics Club challenge: I embarked on this in November 2012. According to the ‘rules’ I was supposed to have read 50 books from my list by November 2017. Well, it’s now more than 2 years later and I still have three titles yet to go. I’m using the latest Classics Club spin to give me a nudge towards the finishing line. I still have books on my original list that I haven’t read. I might get to them over time or I might not.
World of Literature Project: Another self-imposed challenge to read books by authors from 50 different countries within 5 years. I’m two years over the target date with 9 countries still to go. No reason why I shouldn’t find those remaining countries before the year is over. I’m not abandoning my interest in reading translated fiction and fiction from around the world – just taking away the pressure of specific goals.
The one aspect of challenges I do enjoy is the camaraderie and feeling of connection to other bloggers. I don’t want to lose that – the social element of blogging is by far the thing that keeps me going. Without it, blogging would be just a form of vanity publishing.
Instead of year long or multi year challenges I’m going to switch my focus to small events; the kind that last just for a week or a few months.. There are countless numbers of these around so I’m going to have to be selective otherwise I’ll end up in the same rabbit hole I’ve been in before via challenges.
I’ll be joining events if and only if they take my fancy and I can do them without a reading list in sight.
Reading Events On the Horizon
There are already a few events that are calling to me.
Japan Literature Challenge, hosted by dolcebellezza is now in its 13th incarnation. It involves just reading books by Japanese authors between January and end of March. It’s a good opportunity to revisit some of the authors whose books I already own.
Paula at Book Jotter will be hosting the Wales Readathon throughout March. This will be the second year for the event and of course I have to support anything which promotes literature from my home country.
Unfortunately that readathon coincides with Reading Ireland Month hosted by Cathy at 746books so I might have to limit myself to just one book from Ireland. I’ll at least feel that I’ll have joined in the buzz. That’s what is so great about these short events – you can just dip in like this without any obligations to do much more.
Finally, in April, Simon and Karen will be hosting the 1920 reading club; a week long celebration of fiction, non-fiction, poetry published 100 years ago.
And that’s more than enough for me to be getting on with. What happens after April I’ll decide further down the road.
Will You Be Joining Me? Have you made any plans yet for 2020? Do they include challenges or do you prefer more free-form reading? Do post a comment below to let me know.