Opinion

Throw Away Your TBR List: A Radical Reading (un)Plan

pile of booksThe longer I work in books, the more I’m asked how I keep track of what I want to read. Every reader knows that the options are overwhelming–there are more books being published than ever before, and readers have more options for accessing them–and nobody knows how to manage it. So we ask each other. We build tracking tools and apps and social networks. We sign up for reading challenges. We join book clubs. We’re willing to try just about anything that claims to offer us a way to make order out of the chaos that is the unending flow of book recommendations that come at us every day. And if/when we wrangle our received recommendations into some kind of system, what then? How do we, given the finite nature of our lives and our free time, decide what to read, and when?

What we do, I think, is throw away the lists. Delete the anxiety-inducing, peer pressure-based apps. Break up with the social networks and the reading challenges and the book clubs we like attending because the people are great even though we never finish the books. We kick prescriptive reading plans to the curb. We remind ourselves that there are no “shoulds” in the reading life, that there are myriad reasons for reading, and that we can read whatever we want, whenever we want, for whatever reason floats our bookish boats. We are not beholden to the list of hundreds or thousands of want-to-read titles we’ve been tracking for years. We are not the same people we were when we began those lists, and it is not only okay but actually good for us to do some culling.

If your TBR list has become a source of stress, get rid of it. If that pile of unread books in your home gives you guilt rather than anticipatory pleasure, spread those suckers out on the floor and yank out the ones you’re no longer interested in. If you really wanted to read that book you’ve had sitting around for a decade, you’d have done it by now. So what that you spent fifteen bucks on it back in the day? Donate it to a shelter or charity, and give yourself the gift of reading freedom. If buying books makes you feel committed, try your library or an ebook subscription service. You’re not going to get a better seat in heaven or earn imaginary reader brownie points or get any recognition or reward at all for making yourself read a book you felt obligated to. You’re just going to lose time you could have spent reading something you would have gotten more out of.

And that’s the point of it all, right, to get something out of what we read? To get knowledge or pleasure or escape or entertainment or a window into a different kind of life. If your TBR is not giving you these things, if it’s not giving you more than it is taking from you, get rid of it. Go into each new book-choosing moment with an idea of what you want, and then pick up the book that feels right in the moment. Selecting books should be pleasurable. It should be exciting. It should promise you the thrill of discovery. It should not be about ticking boxes and satisfying arbitrary, self-imposed requirements. Goals for reading are good, and being mindful of the ways you’d like to expand your reading life is good. Forcing yourself to read books simply because you at some point in the past added them to a list is, well, kind of pointless.

So how do I keep track of what I want to read? I don’t. When it’s time to select my next book, I peruse my shelves, both physical and digital, and I just go for it. My Goodreads account was short-lived and is long dead. The book stack in my house and the digital shelves on my tablet are constantly changing (I’m not saying that you can’t have a stack, just that you shouldn’t feel like it owns you). I add books as they appeal to me, and I remove them if upon revisiting, at any point in time, they’re no longer appealing. Sometimes I read new acquisitions immediately, but usually, I tell myself I’ll get around to them eventually. Maybe. If it feels right and the moon is in its seventh house and what I’m in the mood for matches up with something in my library. If nothing matches up, I go find something that does. The reader I am today is not the reader I was yesterday or the reader I’ll be tomorrow, and that’s a good thing.

When you kiss your TBR list goodbye, you make room for serendipity. For that magical feeling of getting the right book at the right time. Miraculously, there’s no such thing anymore as, “I can’t read X until I finish Y.” You learn that giving away a book isn’t a waste, it’s an investment in your reading happiness and a step toward maximizing serendipity. Ditto for returning a book you checked out but aren’t enjoying. If you could have that magic every time you picked out your next read–and you can have it–why would you opt for anything else?

If your TBR list works for you, that’s great. Get on down with your bad self. But if it makes you feel guilty or overwhelmed or depressed or unfulfilled or like you’re doing reading wrong, throw it away. Click “delete.” Trust your brain to remember the books you’re actually interested in, then trust your gut to pick out the right reads at the right time. Take recommendations from reliable sources, but know you are not committed or obligated to them. Remember that your reading life is yours. Read what you want when you want to. Buck the pressure, fuck the haters, and make room for the magic.

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