My TBR Monster Is Wounded But Still Alive

TBR - tackling unread books

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:

  1. Reframe The Issue
  2. Measure the Beast
  3. Stocktake
  4. Set A Goal
  5. Remove ‘Slow Moving’ books
  6. Get Off The Fence
  7. Deal With New Stock
  8. Read The Books
  9. 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.

The Goal

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.

The Result

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!

Nil Desperandum

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!

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on January 20, 2020, in Book Reviews, TBR list and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 39 Comments.

  1. I think I might have mentioned it before, but I appreciate your thoughtfulness when it comes to your reading. It’s one of the reasons I keep returning to your blog. That said, I bookmarked this post and your earlier post to return to as I work on slaying my own TBR monster.

    My list isn’t as extensive as yours, because a few years ago, my wife and I weeded through our physical books. Our physical book pile is a lot less, but my Kindle list is about 100 and increasing as I find deals. But I’d like to wound, even if merely, my TBR monster and maybe this year, I will.

    • That’s a lovely comment Bryan, thanks so much for the boost to my confidence. It brightened an otherwise wet and miserable day! I know we’ll be thinking of downsizing in the next five years or so – I know that reducing my book collection will be a tough job so i thought I’d ease the pain somewhat by doing it more gently and start the clearance year by year. Good luck with your battle against the TRB

  2. Fascinating stuff! I’ve had to pile up my birthday and Christmas acquisitions (see my blog for the horror of 1 January) and I’m making an effort to read books from the oldest part of the shelf (mid-2018) and some newer ones as I go, so fitting them on the end can be done all in one go (maybe). I’m making an effort to read more, which is actually really, really nice (helped by giving up a time-consuming hobby!).

    • I would love to read more, especially from the books i already own but I can’t do that without giving up on an exercise regime or my interest in genealogy. Maybe I’ll ease back on them in time but I’m not ready to do that right now.

  3. Sheree @ Keeping Up With The Penguins

    I am a huge, huge advocate of making/keeping lists. As you’ve described here, it’s a mammoth undertaking and most people look at me like I’m off my head when I suggest it – BUT, as you’ve also described here, it’s really effective! I keep a spreadsheet list of all the unread books I own, and I don’t know how I would live or read without it. But my real secret sauce is keeping a “wishlist”, a list of books I’ve come across that I want to buy. Whenever I’m in a bookshop or book fair, I try (generally) to stick to that list. If I come across a gem that I really want that wasn’t on the list, fine, but it helps me keep the acquisitions down way more than any arbitrary buying ban would.

    • I have a document with titles of books that people have recommended or I’ve seen mentioned somewhere. But I always forget to take it with me when I’m near a book shop/library so really it has minimal value. I should keep it on my phone I suppose

      • Sheree @ Keeping Up With The Penguins

        I’m an Apple user, so I save it to Notes, which syncs through the cloud (however that works) – basically, it’s on my computer, it’s on my phone, it’s with me wherever I go. I also keep the list of the books I already own there, and it’s saved me from MANY an accidental-purchase double-up!

        • I can do the same since I’m a Mac user too. I have my TBR stored in the cloud but never thought about doing my wishlist that way. Thanks for nudging me into action

  4. Loved this post, thank you! All these years, the rate at which I bought books far exceeded the rate at which I read them but I did not bother to do anything about it. However, space constraints finally compelled me to go in for a book cull beginning this year (most of these were books I bought around 5-6 years ago). I am now trying to be disciplined and to keep looking at my shelves so that I am constantly reminded of the good books that I already own and which I need to read first.

  5. I haven’t properly looked at my TBR IN MONTHS, though I know it has spread to both the bedside table AND the couch.

    I try not to, but feel the need to mention the pile of books awaiting rehoming under Bookcrossing, which makes this place look like a 2nd hand bookstore, which will last until I get my act together and just bloody well share…!

    • I had to give up on Bookcrossing because the nearest convenient zone closed. So now I just take with me when I do a shift at the National Trust property where I volunteer.

  6. 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.

    I like this and may have to do something similar. I know which is my oldest unread because I happened to keep a list of them even prior to blogging, but I really do have to wonder whether I’m going to read it at this point.

  7. Good luck with your ‘battle’. Given that I’ve just written a post featuring books unread from the 1960’s I’m a lost cause.

    • I can’t even begin to imagine how many books you have in your home Jill based on the number you post about having purchased….

      • Thankfully the majority of books I’ve bought in last 8 or 9 years have been e-books so no shelf space required. From 1990 -2010 majority of books were borrowed from library so minimal purchases. That said we house 13 bookcases of various sizes.

  8. LOL, I had to laugh at your descriptions of your TBR, but really mine is as bad (if not worse) and totally out of control. I am trying to do a similar kind of thinning exercise and weed out those casual purchases I’m actually now not bothered with. But I think I would really function better with a physical TBR as despite tracking what I read in a spreadsheet, just looking at a list of potential reads wouldn’t be the same for me. I need to get ruthless and create a dedicated TBR space. Of course, things are complicated by the fact the books are *everywhere* and pre-blog, I can never be sure what I’ve read and what I haven’t….. 🙁

    • I would prefer to be able to use the physical TBR but I’ve had to double up the rows of books in the book case so I can’t actually see a lot of what I have

  9. I’m impressed! and some excellent TBR Assault tips in your post. Especially the 5 years or older tip once a week excursion. That’s one I shall adopt. Happy reading in your own private bookstore.

  10. Well done. I list what’s in my TBR, purely so that I can ‘browse’ what I’ve got, but truly, I haven’t managed to reduce my TBR stack all that much over the years (that aid, it hasn’t grown either!).

    • I wouldn’t have done this exercise but for the fact I had absolutely no room left. All my to read books are in a walk in cupboard in the room space. I can just about get in there but there are books everywhere on the floor so I can’t easily see what I have let alone where a particular book is

  11. I love your honest reflection and candid thoughts!!! I especially like the idea of thinking of it as your own Bookshop! It’s all in the perspective! I love knowing how well prepared you are for an apocalypse! I love that you don’t think of owning all these unread books as a big problem! I think your 5 years and older pile strategy is brilliant! This is one of the most entertaining and relatable posts I’ve read recently! Well done! 🙌😍

  12. I have given up on the incoming side of the book inventory (so many good books beg to be added to the TBR shelves) but have become more discerning about books I will keep forever versus books suitable for being enjoyed and passed on. This keeps the TBR shelves full, rotates the stock fairly regularly, and keeps overflow stacks off the floor!

    • What a good approach J.G. I’ve been more disciplined too about what I keep. It has to be very special to earn a place. I fell into a habit of keeping books but never re-reading them. Now I reason that most books could be obtained from the library if I do really want to read them again

  13. So helpful, and funny!! Good luck!

  14. Sounds like you did great. I cut my TBR room down considerably esp last year.

  15. I don’t care about the size of my TBR, but you have identified the key benefit of tacking it, and that is, that you discovered some great books that you wish you’d read before this exercise.
    So here’s a suggestion, not one I plan to use myself because I have learned that when it comes to books and reading, planning anything just doesn’t work for me. But you are clearly more goal-orientated than I am… so maybe if when you buy a book you add some kind of prioritising tag to your spreadsheet, then those books won’t lapse into neglect.
    For example, suppose you were doing 1001 Books before you die, you could tag any books from the 1001, and then they would be the books that you would head for first. Or if you tagged the Welsh ones, they would be the ones you go for during Welsh Reading Week or whatever.
    Cheers, Lisa

    • oops, typo: That’s tackLing’ not tacking!

    • I was forced through my employment for an American company to be very goal driven – a habit its now hard to break :). But planning what to read is not my strength either. I did manage however to label all my books in the spreadsheet so I know the country of origin for the author which helps a lot for those reading events.

  16. The TBR may be a beast that can be kept at bay but never really killed. Still, your advice is good. A 12% reduction of a large TBR is actually very impressive.

    Happy reading! ‪

  17. Good luck! I actually bought software that “catalogs” my personal library. And I work in a library, so I was able to borrow a library scanner to scan my books. I have hundreds of books, and a lot of them are unread. But now I can look at the app (both on my phone and on my PC) and see what I own and whether or not I’ve read it. You’re right—it’s a long process!

    • I’m rather envious of that software and scanner tool you were able to use. Although it still took time I bet it was still quicker than the manual approach i had to use

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