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!
Is this a familiar picture?
Every shelf in every bookcase in your home is stuffed with unread books.
There are books on tables and on the floor.
Every conceivable space is occupied by books you have not yet read. They’re becoming a source of much grumbling by your nearest and dearest.
And yet each week you end up buying more. That TBR list is becoming a monster.
You’ve tried hiding the books, pretending that if you can’t see them, that they don’t exist. But when you trip over them at every turn, you know no can no longer stay in denial.
You occasionally talk about tackling this ogre. But you don’t really know how.
If this does sound familiar, then you are certainly not alone. Virtually every book blogger I follow has – at some point- grumbled about the overwhelming size of their TBR.
The good news? You can do something about this.
9 strategies to help you slay that TBR monster
1 Reframe the issue
My TBR currently stands at 314. I occasionally moan about this on the blog. But if I’m being completely honest with myself – and with you – that’s just for show.
Because deep down I count that stack as a blessing not a curse. It means I have a personalised library at my fingertips, always open 24/7, 365 days a year.
Only thing I don’t like? Tripping over the piles around the house ….
So, as much as I love my library, I do want to scale it back to a more manageable number. I’m not going to get stressed out about it. I’m just going to be more pragmatic.
To reframe the issue, challenge yourself to answer this question:
Is your TBR is a source of tribulation or a source of delight?
Switching to a more positive mindset could help you approach the next steps with more optimism.
2. Measure the beast
You can’t tackle the TBR issue until you know exactly the scale of your task.
That means you have to do a count of every unread book you have in your house/apartment/caravan/yurt. You’ll be using this number later.
Pull out every unread book in your home. Pile them all up on the floor or the table.
Count them all.
You might be surprised the total isn’t higher. (I doubt it since books seem to have a habit of lurking in dark corners, hiding down the back of the sofa. ) But you might also be horrified because never in your wildest dreams did you realise you had THAT many.
It doesn’t matter what your total is; what does matter is that you’ve done the tally.
Before you put them all back in their original homes you must:
A. Make a note of this number and the date you did the count. This is now your baseline
B. Take a photo of this stack. It’s a physical reminder of the scale of your challenge
3 Time to stocktake
Think of yourself as the owner of a bookshop. As a good business person you know it’s important to have a realistic view of four elements.
- What items are in your shop.
- What is ‘selling’ well.
- Which items are slow moving.
- What items are unsuitable for sale because they’re damaged goods.
When you have a clear picture of what you have in your TBR ‘library’ you’ll be in a stronger position to:
- discover over-stocking ( ie duplicate or triplicate copies of the same book) and
- find ‘lost’ items: books you thought had disappeared entirely and
- unearth damaged books; those with loose pages or broken spines and
- avoid waste (how many times in the past have you bought a book only to discover you already had a copy at home).
Stocktaking your TBR library means you need to make a record all of your books. As a minimum you should document:
- book title and
- author name and
- date purchased/acquired.
You can use a spreadsheet or use a platform like Goodreads or Library Thing. The choice is yours.
I prefer to have my list in spreadsheet format because I want to record more than just the basics.
These are my additional columns.
- Date of publication.
- Nationality of the author.
- Date I read the book.
- Whether I finished it
- Category (for example crime, classic, book in translation).
- Notes about how I obtained this book (for example, was it a book club choice, a birthday gift, a review copy).
4. Set a goal
If you want to be successful at reducing your TBR, you need to set a goal. Without a goal you lack focus and direction. Goal setting not only allows you to take control of the project, it also gives you a way to determine if you are actually succeeding.
Your goal must be clear and well defined. Vague or generalised goals are unhelpful because they don’t provide sufficient direction. So include precise amounts, dates, and so on in your goals so you can measure your degree of success. If your goal is stated only as “Reduce my TBR” how will you know when you have been successful?
The actual goal is your choice. Only you know what you can realistically achieve.
How do you decide on a realistic goal?
Think about it this way:
How many books do you read on average each year?
If your answer is 50 and you have 500 + plus books in your TBR that means you have 10 year’s worth of reading sitting in your home. And that’s without buying or acquiring a single new book. Maybe you’d be more comfortable with 5 year’s worth of books – so your goal is a 50% reduction.
Your goal could be framed as a percentage or as an absolute number reduction from the total you identified earlier.
Reduce my TBR by 10% by end of [year]
Reduce my TBR to [xx] books by end [year]
If you have a very ambitious target, you might find it more satisfying to think of your goal in multiple stages.
Reduce my TBR by 20% by [end 2022] – reach 5% reduction by [end 2021]
How do you achieve your goal?
By taking one step at a time.
individually, these strategies are not designed to get you to your ultimate goal. But collectively they will ensure you can make significant progress.
5. Remove your ‘slow moving goods’
Slow moving goods is how I describe books that you’ve had for a very long time. You keep promising yourself you will read them. But you never get around to it – there’s always something new catching your eye.
Now is the time to get real. If you haven’t read it in the last five years are you realistically going to read it within the next five years? I doubt it.
Here’s what you do.
Make a pile of all the unread books you’ve owned for longer than 5 years.
Examine them one by one. For each book, challenge yourself whether you will really read it in the next 5 years. You have be firm here. Try not to sit on the fence.
If the answer is clearly “NO”, then put the book in an OUT pile. You’re going to give these away to friends, relatives, charity shops, hospitals etc. Anyone who will take them. You could try to sell them (for example via eBay, or services like ziffit.com)
If the answer is “MAYBE” set the book aside for now. If you find you have a tower of books in the “maybe” category then I’d question whether you’re being rigorous enough. You probably the exercise again…..
You could easily adapt this to a different time frame. If you have a particularly large target you may need to be more ruthless and choose books older than 3 years for example.
6. Get off the fence
You’ve ended up with a pile of books you ‘maybe’ want to read. Tackling this pile should be your next step.
First pick a book. Read about 30 pages. Then decide whether it’s interested you enough to want to continue reading.
If no, then add it to your OUT pile
If YES then you can put it back on your sheIf.
Make a note of when you last assessed this book. If it’s still unread one year after that date, then it’s clearly not for you. Out it should go.
7. Dealing with new stock
You love reading. But you also love buying books. Unless you control the number of new items coming into your library you’re never going to slay the TBR monster.
Some bloggers take the drastic step of implementing a purchasing ban. No new books until their TBR is down to a manageable level.
I know that would never work for me. Maybe it won’t for you either.
But you could use a variation on that theme. As an example: for every five books you read from your TBR you allow yourself to buy one new book..
For those of a nervous disposition, yes you’re allowed a few treats to mark birthdays and other special occasions.
Remember though, that every new book that comes in needs to be added to your TBR spreadsheet or Goodreads list, noting the date purchased etc.
8. Read the books
Yes it really is that simple.
Books are meant to be read. They’re not ornaments. But then you knew that didn’t you?
So all you have to do is read the ones you haven’t read until now.
If you find it difficult to decide what to read next, there are multiple challenges in the blogosphere that can help you overcome indecision:
You’ll find a few of them here:
The start of a new year is always heralded by announcements of new challenges, so keep your eyes peeled. But of course you don’t have to wait for a new year before you start tackling that TBR monster.
If you’re not into challenges, you might enjoy using a TBR jar to select your next read. This is where you can unleash your creativity if that’s what rocks your boat. For an explanation of this take a look at the post on The Chic Site.
9. Repeat, Repeat, Repeat
Congratulations on working your way through all these strategies, But this is no time to rest on your laurels. You need to exercise constant vigilance if you don’t want to end up in the same mess again.
Set a date to do at least an annual ‘stocktake’
Keep challenging yourself with those books you labelled as ‘maybe’s’
What are you waiting for?
Time to get started
These are strategies I’m intending to use to reduce my TBR mountain.
What strategies have you used that you found successful?
It’s time I came clean about the state of my library of unread books (otherwise known as the TBR).
I warn you that this could get ugly.
What’s a TBR?
If you follow any blogs about books and reading you’ll already be familiar with this term.
But for the benefit of any newbies, TBR stands for To Be Read.
It generally means all the books lying around in your home that are unread. Some people chose to include all the books they want to read, but haven’t yet got around to acquiring.
I stick to the “owned by unread” definition for my TBR. I record all of these titles on a spreadsheet which lists when they were bought/acquired, the author’s country of origin and a category (classic, translated, crime etc). At one time my TBR included books I wanted to read but the list quickly became huge and I panicked so I now just put those into a Goodreads wishlist.
Seriously you have how many unread books!!!
I have in the region of 314 unread books at home.
It’s not an exact figure because I keep finding books in unexpected places around the house.
This is higher than the figure at the end of 2018 (for the record I got to Dec 31 with 302 books).
I was doing well until May, resisting buying too many new titles but then it all went haywire. A combination of a buying splurge, a birthday and some advance copies passed on by other bloggers – yes they are to blame! ).
What would be an ideal number?
I don’t have a target for the number of unread books I think it would be acceptable to have in my library.
I’d like to think I could make significant progress and get it down to around 270 by end of 2019 but I doubt that’s going to happen. I’m trying to exercise some restraint (you might not believe it but it’s true) by avoiding NetGalley – I know if I look I will end up clicking. That way madness lies.
I hadn’t realised I have so many non factual books on my shelves. They’re a mix of history (I have a few by Mary Beard), health related and memoirs. A lot of the books in translation are ones I acquired when I started my quest of reading more broadly around the world. I’m slowly making my way through them.
Booker Prize related 6 (two winners, 1 shortlisted and 3 longlisted)
Children’s fiction 2
Crime/thriller . 19
Non fiction . 27
Short story collections . 6
Fiction in translation . 40
Welsh authors 13
Paper dominates in my house. Though I found an electronic reader a saviour when I was travelling a lot for work, now I’m retired I don’t have to worry about lugging heavy books around with me. There are 40 books on my e reader. They’re a mixture of classics from Gutenburg , Net Galley editions and some bargains I bought from that big company named after a river.
The oldest book in my collection is …
According to my spreadsheet the book I’ve had the longest is To the Lighthouse. But that’s misleading because I bought it in 1975 and have read it twice. I think I kept it on the list because I meant to read it again at some point. It shouldn’t really be there.
Next in line is Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (a Booker prize shortlisted title).
My record says I acquired it in 2010. I say “I” but actually it was a book I bought for my husband. He didn’t care for it but I rescued it from the ‘donate to charity shop’ pile. Now I’m thinking: do I still want to read this? It’s dystopian fiction which I haven’t read much of in the past but maybe this could be the book that helps get me more interested in that genre.
After that comes James Kelman’s How Late it Was, How Late (what an apt title for book that’s been waiting eight years for me to get around to reading). It’s on the list because it’s part of my Booker Prize project. I did actually begin reading it and then put aside. I WILL read it this year……
The newest book (s) in my collection are…
Today’s purchases were:
West by Carys Davies: a novella about early pioneers in America. I bought it for two reasons. Reason One, I loved her earlier work The Redemption of Galen Pike. Reason Two, she hails from Wales though sadly has moved home to Scotland.
Normal People by Sally Rooney. The accolades keep pouring in for this second novel by the Irish author. I’m curious whether it lives up to all those awards for which it’s been nominated.
Any review copies in that pile?
Currently I have nine review copies still to be read.
Sounds impressive doesn’t it?
Unfortunately most of these are about three years old. They were the result of getting over excited on Net Galley and not paying enough attention to the book description before putting in my request. Lesson learned. Now I only request review copies or accept them if I am very certain I’ll be able to read them in a reasonable time frame.
Book number 200 on the list is
The 200th book is in fact one of those old Net Galley review copies. A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee is the first in his series set in 1919 British ruled Calcutta featuring a former Scotland Yard detective. I learned today he’ll be doing an author event in a local bookshop this September so I should really try to read this before that date.
The books I most want to read
I’ve put 15 titles from my TBR onto the list for 20BooksofSummer so that’s going to be my focus for the next few months. I’d also like to get to these three books soonish.
Now you’ve been introduced to the darkest secrets of my TBR, how about pulling back the curtains on your stash of unread books?
I don’t normally join in with Top Ten Tuesday but this week’s topic happened to coincide with one of my periodic reviews of my TBR. So I give you my list of 10 Books That Have Been On My Shelf (Or TBR) From Before I Started Blogging and Still Have Not Got Around to Reading.
In no particular order:
- A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. Yes I’m ashamed to admit I have yet to read this classic in its entirety – just read bits and pieces as needed for essays. Oops.
- Armdale by Wilkie Collins. Exactly when this book came into my house I am not sure. It was at least 17 years ago since it was in the boxes when when we moved into our current house that long ago. Indeed it is a rather old looking paperback though not so old that the pages are yellow. I might even have read it but if I did then it left no impression on me. It is however not the oldest book on my shelves.
- Can Forgive Her by Anthony Trollope. I read the first two in the Barchester Chronicles (The Warden and Barchester Towers) and loved them. The plan was to read the whole series and then move onto the Palliser series of which Can You Forgive Her is the first title but I never got beyond Barchester Towers. My copy of Can You Forgive Her is dated 1996 so you can see how long ago I dreamed up that plan. I will get around to it sometime soon….possibly
- Even then the Trollope is not the oldest on the shelf. That dubious honour goes to The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith. My copy was printed in 1986 – yep it’s been with me for 30 years and has never been opened since there isn’t any sign of a crease on the spine. I started reading an e version of this about two years ago but lost interest.
- George Eliot – The Last Victorian by Kathryn Hughes. I love Eliot’s work and bought this rather fat book as a way of getting to know Eliot the person. It’s been on the shelf now for longer than 5 years and I haven’t even opened it.
- A Parisian Affair and other stories by Guy du Maupassant: I made this a special request one Christmas having heard that Maupassant was a master of the short story format. I must have been in one of my “I need to read more short stories’ periods; none of which have proved successful.
- Virginia Woolf An Inner Life by Julia Briggs: There is a definite pattern emerging here with many of the books that are stuck at the back of the shelves falling into the category of literary biographies. Maybe I thought that I would seem very learned and intelligent by reading these…..
- Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. About 10 years ago some work colleagues recommended this breakthrough work on climate change and chemical pollution. I wasn’t looking forward to it, expecting it would be rather ‘worthy’ and stuffed full of facts which would make it less readable. But the introductory pages were a revelation because Carson was clearly someone who understood rhythm and meter and imagery. It was a very poetic form of prose that I loved. But clearly not enough to read any further because there the book sits on the shelf unread all these years later.
- The Mysteries of Udolpho by Anne Radcliffe. This 1794 novel is satirised in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. I’d never read it but thought it would be interesting to see exactly some of the form and conventions of the Gothic novel that she was ridiculing. It’s a fat novel where not a lot seems to happen for a very long time other than the heroine goes wandering around some mountainous region of France. I kept waiting for the ‘horror’ element to kick in. My copy still has my bookmark showing that I read about half of it. Will I ever go back to read the remaining section? Hm, not entirely sure about that.
- Pamela by Samuel Richardson. This one belongs to an era when I was trying to fill in some gaps from my reading of the early British novel. Pamela, published in 1740, was the best-seller of its time. The reading public obviously had more patience and tolerance than I did because I’ve not got much further than page 50. As with Radcliffe, will I feel its good for my soul to read this or that life it too short to spend on books I am not enjoying?
Remember when you got awarded a gold star by the teacher when you’d achieved something special? You’d run home to boast about this with the hope of another reward (chocolates and sweets being the favourite of course) for being such a star pupil?
Though I can still run (sadly my skipping skills are depleted to zero), I no longer feel the need to rush to my mother for a pat on the head. But the hope that someone will recognise – and acknowledge – an achievement never goes away does it? We all love to be appreciated and praised.
So I am awarding myself a star for effort for my progress in bringing some degree of control to my pile of 160+ unread books. Not quite gold star standard but maybe I merit a silver.
At the start of the year I joined the Triple Dog Dare where the plan was to read only books from the TBR for the first three months of 2016. It was a kick up the rear end and it worked so well I’ve continued with the habit long after the dare came to an end. So as a result, of the 25 books I’ve read so far this year , 18 have come from my TBR. The rest were all books I had agreed to review. It hasn’t been particularly hard to read what I already have – I’m not exactly short of choices so whatever my mood there’s always something suitable. It’s meant I’ve tackled a few of the Booker winner titles that I’ve been putting off for some time like Rites of Passage by William Golding and Anita Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss.
Now before you begin awarding me a halo I should confess that the overall size of the TBR hasn’t been reduced. It’s gone up in fact because I adopted the principle that even while I am working my way through the TBR backlog, I can still buy any number of new books. I just shouldn’t read them in preference to the ones I already have. And of course I have been buying. I started 2016 with 166 ‘real’ books and a stack of e-books. I’m now at 169 books and thats without a few that I’ve just been ordering . If only i could a) stop buying books b)stop requesting them from Net Galley and c) stop ordering them from the library then I’d be in really good shape and would definitely deserve the gold start. But that would be terribly dull…..