Once upon a time, about 7 years ago, I started a list of books I wanted to read. I’d started lists like that before, written in a notebook or something, but this time I made a document of all the books I wanted to read that were available at the library. I started another list for books I wanted to read that I could get through Inter-Library Loans. And a list for books I wanted to read that aren’t available through any library, so I’d have to buy them.
I own probably a couple hundred books I haven’t read, but my lists have grown much bigger than that. Right now, my Library List document has 1,032 titles on it (alphabetically by author, of course). The ILL list is at 904.
The funny thing about these lists is that I keep adding to them, but I pretty much never read off of them. The books I get through the library tend to be new releases that I immediately request when I decide I want to read them. The idea behind these lists was that I would use a random number generator to select books from them.
These lists have changed over the years. They’re color-coded now! I highlighted authors of color for my year when I read only racialized authors. I highlighted, in a different color, lesbian literary criticism books, for my Lesbian Literature 101 project.
I did use the lists for those projects, and I’m sure they’ll come in handy again. My most life-changing book I read last year was the one title I randomly generated from that list. Even if I never read off those lists again, though, they serve a purpose for me.
For one, they’re a fascinating bit of history. Looking at these lists is like looking at the sedimentary layers of my reading life. I can see interests that I had at different times in my life. Pockets of vegan cookbooks, for when I first went vegan. A big chunk of the list is random queer women lit, from when I thought it was so scarce that I would read anything with representation. There’s a book that one of my professors talked about that sounded interesting, from my second year of college. Teen dystopian novels, back when those were rare. Grammar books, for when I was going to be an editor.
They’re a glimpse not only into who I once was, but also who I wanted to be. Going through old TBR lists is seeing your past self’s ideal. I wanted to be the type of person who would read queer film theory in my spare time. Or a history of the Doctor Who universe (that was pre-Moffat). They’re also a mystery. Some books, I have no idea why I once thought they were worth keeping track of: fiction that doesn’t seem to have any relation to the books I usually read, or nonfiction on obscure, dry topics.
I sometimes glance through and delete books I recognize but no longer have any interest in reading. The titles I don’t remember adding, though, I hesitate to delete. Sure, I’ll probably never actually pick up a book that I don’t remember wanting to read, but what if my past self wrote it down because it secretly has all of my favorite tropes? What if it would be the best book I’ve ever read?? Better not risk it. I’ll keep it. Just in case.
Now, I’ve started writing myself little notes about why I’m adding each book to the list, if the title isn’t explanatory. “Lesbian dystopian.” “Bibilophilic graphic novel.” “Feminist retelling of the Wizard of Oz.”
It’s also fun to see how books I’ve never read have changed in my estimation. Books that I shelved when they came in new now seem passé and uninteresting. Books that seemed cutting-edge now look gimmicky. Context is everything.
The best part of keeping these lists, though, is the optimism. As long as I maintain them, reading all the books I’m interested in seems like a possibility. Every time I scroll past a title I think “One day.” It frees me from trying to remember all the books I want to read. They’re recorded, and as long as they’re there, that means they’ll eventually be read, right?
Let me know if you keep a ridiculous list of books you want to read! Is it over 2,000 books? And what have you found interesting about keeping such a long TBR list?