9 Strategies To Tackle The Mountain Of Unread Books
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’
69 thoughts on “9 Strategies To Tackle The Mountain Of Unread Books”
Thanks for the link 🙂 And now I just have to set a ‘realistic’ goal 😀
You could go for a % reduction or a hard number but if you don’t hit the target so what. No-one is going to come and drag you off to a punishment cell
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Nice, though I don’t see the problem, 300 is nothing, I have over 900 lol. The one thing at a time sounds good.
As you know, every Saturday, I go through my Goodreads TBR list, listed from the oldest time I added a book. I try to delete from that list books that no longer speak to me, for one reason or another.
I have a few reading projects to finish, after that, I’d like to read a few every month. For instance, let’s say, if I start this in September, I’ll look what books I added to my list in September 2011 (my first year on Goodreads), and read it/them. I only have one left added on that month, Ex Libris, so it would put my goal to read it this September.
That’s a very organised and disciplined approach. Sounds like it works for you well
LOL I’m glad you rescued my comment from spam… I wonder if that’s happening with my comments on other blogs too?
Anyway, I am pleased to report that it’s possible to recover from the book sale malady. I used to fall for lots of ‘coffee-table’ books at those pop-up book sale places that sold remaindered books, but I haven’t succumbed to that for years.
I’d be too busy offloading the coffee table ones I have but have never opened
You look like you are highly focussed and organised. I’m afraid that most of the steps on your list wouldn’t work for me. BUT I do think I can cope with 5, 6 and of course 8.
One issue I have is that some of my TBRs are books I have been lent and do want to read, just not as badly as I want to read other things. Because they are not my books, they live in a separate pile in a prominent place so that I remember to give them back – and this pile annoys me!
Another issue is that some of my TBRs are books I’ve inherited from family members who have downsized or died. I’ve got rid of most of these people’s books, of course, because they didn’t interest me. But there are plenty of others that I can’t quite part with, even though I know they’re going to take an effort to read (e.g they are fragile, small print or in another language).
My tactic with my ‘real’ TBRs is simple: two shelves, and when these are full I must either read or thrown out a book.
My husband burst out laughing when I read him your first sentence. He didn’t recognise me from the description….. Unfair I think. I mean I might occasionally leave the odd book lying around but then who doesn’t. Anyway, to your issues – those books you’ve inherited would be too precious to part with no matter whether you read them or not. They came with memories attached that you want to hold on to. So I wouldn’t even put them through my ‘process’. The ones on loan maybe you could use my suggested strategy of ‘if you haven’t read them in 5 years from now, then you should remove them…..?
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Great tips! I think I need to make a spreadsheet with my owned TBR on it.
The spreadsheet certainly helped me Nicole though I had several passes at it because I kept finding books I didn’t remember I had
I’ve started an Owned TBR shreadsheet now, but I have books squirreled away all over the place so I know I’ll need to keep revisiting it. I did use yours as a starting place, but since I track different things I made many modifications. 🙂
It’s your book collection so its important you have a tool that works for you, not for someone else
I suspect this is going to be a hugely popular blog post for your site-everyone has this problem! Like you, my TBR stack is a source of joy mostly, but 99% of them were acquired for free as review copies, so I have a bit of anxiety about getting things read, however most publishers have assured me they don’t expect me to review every single one, simply because they send so many, so much of my anxiety is self-imposed (phew!)
I think I would panic at having a large stack of review copies because I’d feel under pressure to read a large number of them. Hence why I don’t request as many as I used to
Your premise is all wrong (for me anyway) I love owning books and having them on shelves all round the house. I might read – or reread – them one day, meanwhile I don’t see the problem, for the rest of my life and probably my children’s lives there will be good and interesting and important books for whenever’s the right time to read them.
As I said, I view my TBR as a source of pleasure….
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Excellent strategy. I agree, you have to start with a count. I’ve got the point where I’m not necessarily knocking heaps off the list each year but the number is not higher, so that’s okay by me.
Everyone has their own ‘comfort level’ about the number of unread books they have. My level would be higher if a)I read more books each year b)I wasn’t seriously out of space…
Love this post! I think my own TBR is a little less menacing or overwhelming, because I don’t own even a tenth of the books on my TBR (Goodreads says I have 833 marked as to-read 😅) so I don’t have to stare at a big stack of unread books every day! But I definitely should take a look at the unread books I do own and do what you suggested — read them 🙈 Great post!
I don’t count them if I don’t actually own them. I class those as my ‘wishlist’ rather than my TBR. If I added in the wishlist, I think I would be in panic mode…
Ah, that makes sense! Yeah, my “wishlist” is definitely very terrifying 😅
At the moment I’m cataloguing all my books, mainly so I can have them on my phone and can check up if I have one already when I see something I want in a secondhand bookshop- no more doublers I hope. I should know at the end of it how many I have unread but I know that I have read most of them, surprisingly my TBR books can’t be as many as I feared, despite my buying habits.
Having them readily available is a super point. I have my list in Google drive and marked as being available offline to help avoid that duplication issue. I learned this the hard way though…..
1. It would take me hours and hours to make a pile with all my unread books and then document them. Sigh.
2. My maybe pile would be taller than the house. Indecision is my greatest downfall.
1. It would be a lot of fun playing with my books!
Maybe do a bookcase at a time so it doesn’t feel so overwhelming?
Good idea! 🙂
Excellent post, and I suspect it’s the ‘maybes’ that cause me the most problems. I do tend to hold onto books because I think I might want to read them someday. And I *have* read books finally that have been on the TBR for 20 years. I shall try to apply some of the excellent ideas here!
The maybe’s are my downfall too. Plus I have a ‘maybe re-read’ category…..
Very good advice! Is this a system you follow yourself already or did you put it together in hopes that you could get yourself organized too? 🙂
I’ve done what I consider the groundworks steps – ie, identifying just how many books I have and doing my ‘stocktake”. I’m now deciding on my goal. I’ve worked it out that I have just over 6 years worth of books that are unread. Probably going to aim at reducing that to 4 years worth which means removing 100 books. The process of selecting ones to give away has started but the big effort will be next week….
This is a great post. I don’t THINK I have a lot of unread PHYSICAL books, but I might pull them off the shelves and stack them to see how shocked I might be. I think my problem is the ebooks that are out of sight, out of mind. I should probably make a list of those so I know what I’ve got. Thanks for the handy tips and tricks!
Thanks Jinjer, glad you found this helpful. E books are another challenge because they are in essence invisible whereas with physical books you get a constant reminder that you have them because they are physically present. I do include ebooks in my spreadsheet for that reason and although I can’t physically pull them off a shelf I can still look at them in the ebook library and make a decision – keep or discard
I did find it VERY helpful. Maybe when I get to the step of inventorying the ebooks I’ll include a picture of the cover since I often choose a book by it’s cover. Maybe seeing pictures of the ebook covers will make me more curious to read them.
I love this idea – the lack of attractive artwork is often a turn off for me with ebooks.
The best thing I ever did was catalog everything (using Goodreads) to know what all I had and then sticking to adding things to the list every time I get a new book. It helps with my digital copies as well!
I should’ve mentioned – when I did it I got rid of a full box. I’ll probably clean them up again in the next year or so to see what I’m no longer interested in reading.
Yep, that catalogue is essential. I had several versions of mine because jus when I thought I had them all listed, I found some in unexpected places
Periodically I find that one has gotten off track and that’s when I do a clear out.
I enjoyed your post – draconian though it may be. I had a purge recently, and the 5-year barrier tip worked well for me. And the no-buy promise, has also worked well. But each to their own . I have to add that I am not in the same TBR league as you, so the issue is not as pressing. But strength to your arm/eye/resolve.
Oh dear, I didn’t mean this to be draconian! But I suppose if you are really serious about reducing the pile, you have to take drastic action….
Excellent advice, Karen! 😊
Do you follow any practices yourself or are things pretty well under control?
I love your ‘maybe’ criteria, Karen. In linguistic analysis there is an unwritten rule that if you find after your analysis is finished that you have more items in your miscellaneous box than in any one of your defined categories you have missed a category. This is pretty much the same idea. After having downsized I no longer have a tbr pile, only a tbr wish list and Jolyon Bear (he who looks after the pennies) will only let me buy a book immediately before I want to start reading it. Perhaps I should loan him out to you as a consultant?
I would love to borrow Jolyon, though he might get frustrated at the way I spend pennies on chocolate which I consider a necessity….
The unwritten rule of analysis is very sound advice. It could apply to many other things – like filing systems on my computer and for emails where I have too many that are not in folders….
I’ve tried all these at one time or another. With varying degrees of success and some spectacular failures. So this year I’m trying a combination of two. Reduce the TBR as of 1.1.2019 by 60 by end of year and reduce purchases by having no more than 5 unread 2019 purchases in the stacks. The second goal is a downright failure at this point, but having it in mind means purchases are slowing. By end of June I had made 12 fewer purchases than in the same period last year. And TBR reduction stands at X-20. Small steps ….
Which were the spectacular failures? The book ban I suspect (or at least it would be for me who lasted just three months) Your approach of 5 unread 2019 purchases is a very reasonable one, it means you still get the enjoyment of purchasing but without getting overwhelmed
Spectacular failures: book-buying ban; read 3, purchase 1. The 5 unread 2019 purchases may be reasonable – unfortunately when it comes to book-buying there’s not an ounce of reason in me.
I’m tempted to attempt the unread for 5 years cull next. Though I have so many collections I’m not prepared to split up, I’m afraid its use will be very limited. We shall see …
Ah collections would be a tough one to deal with…
I think reframing the issue iis excellent advice, Karen.
It has helped me certainly.
I can get through around 150 books a year, I only request books from netgalley if I can commit to reading them. I have a diary with dates that I need to read other books by, but I still have unread books on my kindle and boxes of other unread books.
I follow that principle with requests too and have deliberately not looked at netgalley for months. I wasn’t getting through the ones I had already so there seemed little point in getting even more.
This is admirable, but my difficulty is that doing all those strategies takes time – time when I could be reading. I do have a record of TBRs on LibraryThing, but there is no way that I can see myself getting all the books together in a pile – we would not be able to move! 🙂
It does take time at the beginning Margaret but then each year the amount of effort is considerably less.
I agree with the previous comment though I do have a strategy for the 2000 books in my home. Walk to the shelf with closed eyes and pick a book at random. Read it next or get rid of it. Only problem is I haven’t had enough nerve to start this exercise. That makes me laugh.
I thought of doing that closed eyes tactic but I have a sinking feeling that if my hand rested on a book I didn’t want to read next, I wouldn’t be disciplined enough to get rid of it. I would sit on the fence and just think I might want to read it in a few months….
That happened to me with my TBR jar. I thought it was such an awesome idea. I saw so many pretty TBR jars. I found a lovely jar and printed out pictures of each ebook cover, cut them up, put them in the jar…Every time I pulled one out I said “Hmmm…no. I don’t want to read that.” Finally gave up and got rid of the jar.
I think your spreadsheet ideal will work better for me. I love lists and spreadsheets.
I had exactly the same experience with my TBR jar. I think I still have it somewhere. will have to dig it out…..
😀 😀 😀
LOL Karen, my TBR is indeed a source of delight, and I don’t feel any pressure to reduce it. It helps that I have my own library to keep them in here at home, but that in itself shows where my priorities lie. When we renovated the house, I did not want a spare bedroom for visitors, I wanted a library.
However, I do stocktake regularly, mainly to tidy up and sort, and I usually conclude that with what I call my ROTO pile. ROTO means Read Or Throw Out, and yes, they are the books that I’ve hovered over and chosen not to read, over and over again. Sometimes they are those hyped books that I’ve succumbed to and then read reviews by blogging friends and realised my mistake; sometimes they are books I thought I ‘ought’ to read, but don’t really want to. Sometimes they are books by local authors that I bought at a festival because I liked the writer, but actually, no, I don’t want to read their memoir, I’m happy to have given them a sale but the book would be happier in an OpShop where someone who likes to read memoir will pounce on it with joy. The ROTO books are in a small-ish but prominent pile beside my desk, placed to be irritating enough not to be ignored. If I haven’t read them by the time of the next stocktake, out they go.
Occasionally when I am feeling frivolous I consider the possibility of graphing my TBR year by year to see if it goes up or down, but at the end of the day, that’s good reading time that I’d be wasting, eh?
Sorry Lisa, only just found this – it was flagged by wordpress as spam somehow.
Your comment shows just how easy it is to build up a backlog. I think I’ve fallen into both of these rabbit holes; buying books at events because I’d feel guilty if I didn’t support the author; and buying some books I think I should read because they are being raved about elsewhere. Another rabbit hole for me is the book sale…..
Absolutely no way could I ever do this but I admire you, or anyone else for that matter, who can. As for me, I’m far too moody to create an actual TBR. I know I own books I’ll never read but my books are my joy. Gazing at my shelves makes me happy. I don’t ever feel overawed by the TBR that floats around my head, or the one I have on GR. I just read wherever the mood takes me and if I’m in a bookshop and a book really appears to me and I have sufficient funds available then I’m okay with adding to that ever expanding TBR! Great post though. I very much enjoyed reading it.
How wonderful that you think this way. If you don’t feel overwhelmed or even a tiny bit anxious about the unread books, then you are in a great place