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 collection of unread books is now so high it’s rivalling Mount Everest.
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 (to be read) collection.
The good news? You can do something about this.
9 strategies to help you tackle those unread books
1 Reframe The Issue
My TBR currently stands at 314. I occasionally moan about this. 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.
Step one then is to reframe the issue by challenging 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 Mountain
No explorer ever set off to climb a mountain not knowing what lay ahead. Knowing the scale of your task is a critical first step.
Before you can begin to tackle that TBR mountain you need to know how big it truly is.
That means you have to do a count of every unread book you have in your house/apartment/caravan/yurt. Yes every book; the ones in the loft; in the basement; and under the bed; lurking in dark corners and hiding down the back of the sofa..
If you have the space; pull out every unread book in your home. Pile them all up on the floor or the table. Yes it will look a mess but when you see them all together, you’ll get a true picture of what’s ahead of you. You’ll probably be horrified because never in your wildest dreams did you realise you had THAT many.
Now count every book in this pile. Make a note of this number and the date you did the count. This is now your baseline
It doesn’t matter what your total is; what does matter is that you’ve done the tally.
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.
All of these pieces of knowledge are just as valuable for you as they are for the owner of a bookstore.
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 find it more flexible. It’s stored in the cloud using Google so I can access it at any time from my phone or iPad. It means if I’m in a bookshop and about to make some purchases I can quickly check to make sure I haven’t already bought the book.
I’ve set the spreadsheet up so it gives me a snapshot picture of all the books I owned at the start of the year, how many I’ve read, how many given away etc. I can filter by author’s name as well as by genre.
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 2023] – reach 5% reduction by [end 2022]
How do you achieve your goal?
By taking one step at a time.
5. Clear Out the Oldies
individually, these strategies are not designed to get you to your ultimate goal. But collectively they will ensure you can make significant progress.
By the oldies I don’t mean books that were published centuries ago. I’m talking books you bought years and years ago. You’ve been promising yourself you will read them one day. But that never day never seems to arrive. Instead you get distracted by the shiny new books; your latest acquisitions.
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
If you’ve followed all these steps so far, you’ll now be faced 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.
If you are still struggling to make a decision, you could follow the lead of Kate who blogs at booksaremyfavouriteandbest. Every week she takes three books from her vast collection of ebook samples and decides which to keep and which to discard. She blogs about her decisions in her Sample Saturday posts. I’ve used this approach with some of my unread books and found it really helpful to get the opinions of other bloggers on which to keep. You can find an example of one my posts here.
7. Dealing With The New
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 conquer that TBR mountain.
I could tell you that if you want to avoid buying books you need to restrict the opportunities for temptation. So try to stay away from bookshops and NetGalley. It’s tough I know but some bloggers go even further and implement a purchasing ban. That could take many forms:
- no new books bought for a month/3 months/6 months
- no new books bought for the year except for book club choices.
- no new books bought until 10/15/20 books from the TBR list have been read or discarded
- one in for every five out – for every five books you read/discard from the TBR you allow yourself to buy one new title
If this sounds too drastic, you could give yourself some wriggle room where you’re allowed a few treats to mark birthdays and other special occasions.
I know that a complete ban will never work for me. The minute you tell me I can’t do something, I want to do it even more. I have however had great success with short term commitments of around three months.
However you choose to avoid your TBR mountain going even higher remember 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. Bev who blogs at My Reader’s Block hosts a MountTBR Challenge every year for example.
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’