A TBR meme has been making the rounds of the blogosphere this week. I spotted it first at Here There Be Books and then lots of other places, and while I enjoyed reading everyone's posts, it got me thinking about this whole 'to be read' business. What am I really talking about when I talk about my TBR?
1. How do you keep track of your TBR pile?
The simple answer to this is: I don't, and I never have. I have a Goodreads account, and I have a Library Thing account too, but the latter I haven't used since 2008 and Goodreads I only use for recording books read.
The longer answer starts like this: I don't, because I didn't in the beginning. I never expected this overwhelming, gargantuan TBR to happen to me. Does anyone in their right minds set out to buy, borrow or be given hundreds of books, many of which will never be read?
When I was growing up I owned fewer than 10 books, and when I left home for university I only took five with me. I didn't buy books because it wasn't part of our family culture - we borrowed from the library. It was quite a revelation to me that you could buy books, as many books as you wanted. I guess for me it started with set texts for my literature courses. I would buy them all at the beginning of a semester, in a flush of excitement. Even at the time I recognised that this excitement wasn't just about anticipating reading the books. It was about the ritual of the purchase, and the newness of the books as objects, and even the branded plastic bag they came in. By my fourth year this ritual had migrated from the beginning of a semester to the end of the previous one, the day after exams. I got drunk with everyone else, and then I got up the next day and bought books.
Other books crept in to my basket. I started to use book shopping as an antidote to stress and an accompaniment to happiness. There is nothing that isn't improved by buying a book. This is the language of addiction. My friend Alex would joke: Are you starting to tremble, it's been a week. I read a lot of the books, but I didn't read an equal number. The anticipation of the reading was more important than the actual reading. This is what a TBR is for me: an accumulation of anticipation, a shot in the arm. I don't keep track of it, because it matters to me more as a mass than as a series of individual things.
I remember my first introduction to the idea of a TBR. It was fellow Alexandrian Nic's - long before blogging. It snaked all around her parents' home, on book shelves in her room and in the halls. It was neatly in order of acquisition and, for a long time, read in order too. Seeing it overcame any inhibitions I might have had about building an unread library, and my own was born. I wasn't as disciplined as Nic, and it has always been more of a hoard than a pile or a shelf or a room. Because I don't keep track I don't know precisely how many unread books I own, but it's 500+ accumulated over the last 12 years. In recent years I've read between 40-60 books a year, so even if I never bought or received another book I'd have at least a decade of reading ahead of me.
2. Is your TBR mostly print or ebook?
Print, definitely. Although I read on my Kindle a lot, and buy or receive a fair number of ebooks, I actually tend to acquire and then read them. Like a completely normal person for whom the purpose of owning a book is to read it, rather than to look at it. This, I think, reinforces a suspicion that my TBR is not about reading at all. I love reading of course, but it is possible to love reading without also hoarding books and sitting on them like a dragon on a gold nest. I struggle to explain what it really is about - a mixture of anticipation, ownership, indulgence, reassurance - but it's clearly to do with physicality, tangibility.
3. How do you determine which book from your TBR to read next?
Usually I prowl around my shelves for half an hour, tipping forward the books at the front to see the ones I've forgotten at the back (obviously everywhere is double stacked), and then light on 3-4 to investigate. Then I read a couple of pages of each and plump on whichever catches my fancy. Sometimes, even with all those books to read I won't be able to find anything I want. The almost-books end up back on the shelves again, often in a completely different location. This process is one of the delights of having a massive TBR. The churn. Books I bought a month ago end up, somehow pushed back on the second row of the bottom shelf in the guest room, while books I bought 8 years ago re-emerge into the limelight. I like that, it's as though I've bought them all over again.
I very rarely know where a book is in this chaos though, and so laying my hands on something particular can be challenging. I can usually say I do or don't have a title, because my memory for books and book covers is pretty good, but I can spend days looking for it.
4. A book that’s been on your TBR the longest:
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. I bought it in St. Andrews at a bookshop that no longer exists, at Nic's urging, probably over a decade ago and have never got around to it. It springs to mind because when I last picked a book it was in the final three, and I chose something else but promised myself I would read it soon.
5. A book you recently added to your TBR:
The last e-book I bought was The Race by Nina Allan, because it was nominated for the Kitschies Red Tentacle and sounded completely bonkers. The last print book I bought was Domesday Book by Connie Willis, but I don't intend for it to go on the TBR at all. It's arriving in the post today and I'm going to start it later.
Well, I say it won't go on the TBR but the truth is it's been on my mental TBR for a long time. It's one of the books that I've thought about buying so many times that I feel I do own it. I'm sure most people with a massive TBR also have one of these imaginary TBRs. And here is the weird thing about the imaginary TBR: the longer a book is on there, the less likely I am to actually get it. This tells me something else about me and my TBR. Part of the allure of possession is gratifying a need, a desire. You see it, you think about it, you acquire it, you experience the rush of satisfaction that, 9 times out of 10, quickly turns into another book gathering dust. If you think about it too long, the allure gets old. Impulse is less likely. You have to really want something to follow through.
One of the ways I'm trying to control my book buying these days is to hold a book for a while on the imaginary TBR, and see if it stands the test of time. Do I still want to read it after 2 weeks, a month? If the need drops off, I leave it. If it stays strong I buy it. It's working so far, even if it's a lot less fun. Two books currently undergoing the test are The Bees by Laline Paul and Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel.
6. A book that will soon be added to your TBR:
Hopefully, The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall. I want it right now!
7. Numbers of shelves used to house your TBR:
More, double stacked, than can comfortably fit in my house, hence the imaginary TBR regime.
8. On a scale of 1 to 10, how painful is it for your to discard will-never-be-read TBR books?
If I bought it, 10. If I was given it as a gift, 10. If I was sent it for review and asked for it, 8. If I was sent it unsolicited, 1. I very very rarely let go of anything in the first three categories. How could I? It's the books in a mass I love, but I do still feel guilty about those individual stories sitting unread. I try not to think about how much money I have spent on them. If I do then my TBR causes me real pain and anguish. I feel really really bad about it. Maybe if I hadn't bought all these books I would own my own home by now? Or have been able to travel the world? Or just have fluffier towels and crockery that matched?
I mean, not really, because I have a good job and a disposal income and books are a tiny percentage of my expenditure. I don't have those things because I choose not to prioritise them, and books are not my only vice. Still, they are a very visible one. My brother once asked me: What are all these books worth? Nothing, I said, in money terms. He stared at me and shook his head in disdain.
9. A book on your TBR that basically everyone has read but you:
See above, re The Sparrow. And lots and lots of other books that people have given to me or recommended. This is another way in which the TBR gives me sorrow. It represents many dozens of times when I have failed to honour a friend's gift or opinion by not reading the books they have given to me. They get lost amongst all the other books, and I feel very sorry for it.
10. Name your sources of powers– where do you get your books from?
I buy paper books from The Little Apple Bookshop in York - the only independent for miles around - Amazon, Waterstones, direct from publishers, plus any book shop I pass and library sales. I buy ebooks from Amazon, because I'm on the Kindle hamster wheel. I get review copies from publishers, but not many these days, and from Netgalley. I try not to borrow books from friends, because I know I'm unlikely to read them in a timely way, but I do still borrow from the library now and then.
11. A book on your TBR that you’re dying to read:
See above again, The Sparrow. That said, it changes every single day. The TBR gives me such a range if choice, and it's so big that there is always something that looks fantastically attractive. I just read and enjoyed a book that I bought in 2007 and had completely forgotten about.
12. A book you’d recommend others add to their TBR shelves:
Independent People by Halldor Laxness, because it's marvellous.
That's the end of the questions in the meme, but I want to add one.
13. Is your TBR a force for good in your life?
In many ways and on balance, yes. Buying books, collecting books, is a relatively harmless way to get my kicks in life. Building an enormous library of unread books isn't going to kill me or anyone else (saving book shelf collapse), and it supports writers and book sellers and publishers and helps to maintain a varied and lively literary scene. It's a joy to have so much choice in my reading, and to luxuriate in my hoard.
But I don't want to be complacent about the possessive impulse that led me to this bizarre (but thankfully shared) situation, or to forget all the reading experiences already in my grasp that I'm missing because I can't seem to stop coveting more, more, more...
How do you feel about your own TBR? Is it a tyranny or a blessing?