Our Reading Lives

On Accepting My TBR For What It Is

I have several ways to manage the books I want to read. I add books to Libib when they come into the house. I have an outdated spreadsheet of print ARCs that I’ve acquired in one way or another. I randomly add books to my For Later shelf when I’m scrolling through new books on my public library’s website. I’ve tried various apps and landed on a whiteboard for immediate reads for book clubs and other things. And of course, I add books I’m interested in to my Goodreads Want to Read list.

I have been on Goodreads since 2009. I remember days before the feed; the day I posted on Facebook, despairing at the introduction of “Recommendations” because my to-read list had broken 1,000. Then we could start seeing every book every friend was reading, on top of lists and other recommended books and books we organically came across out in the wild. 

It was chaos. Overnight, there were ways to double and triple the size of a to-read list.

Alas, I yearn for the days I had so few books on my list, and then I laugh and add a few more. 

A few years ago, I decided I needed to somehow maintain at least that part of my TBR life. There were books on my (now) Want To Read list that I had surely grown out of interest in or was just never going to read. People change; and sometimes, books just get left behind as more continue to come out. So, in order to better maintain my list, I started a regular culling session. Each time, I got rid of maybe 50 books out of thousands.

And then the next day there I was: scrolling through my feed (as I do every morning…and afternoon…and evening, maybe even more often than the other social media platforms) and adding ten more books that sounded interesting. I couldn’t escape it. It’s such a logical, habitual action: see book, read description, add to list. 

I’ve begun to accept this massive list for what it is: a repository for my interests, desires, and wishes. It will never be a place to maintain a current list of books I expect to actually read in my lifetime. If the next book I pick up to read is on it, that’s great! If I’m looking to see if there are any “important” books coming out in the next month, I can quickly sort it by release date and scroll through. But it’s not actively telling me what I want to read, and I never go into my Want To Read list to figure out what I’m going to pick up. (I haven’t even used the book jar — well, mug — I made earlier this year with 100 or so top-of-list books for times of indecision.) Sure, it’s great to come across books I’ve had on the list for years, especially if I finally managed to read them, or to see that for a couple of months I was very interested in fairy tale retellings. I can see whose and what history I was curious to learn about, what routes I might have taken to explore (and probably abandon) a new genre. I can see what the big themes were in a year’s worth of publishing. Or just in my own corner of the world. If nothing else, it stands to remind me of various books’ existence. But I am not going to use Goodreads’ Want To Read feature as anything but something to maintain a long, ongoing backlist of my bookish interests.

And boy was it freeing to come to that realization. 

It’s helped me come to the same realization when it comes to my actual TBR. While my Want To Read shelf is a mishmash of “hmm, I wouldn’t burn it” and “if you put it in my hands, I’d read that”, my physical and digital TBR — the books I own, either in print or ebook/audiobook format — is a collection of books I came to with every intention of someday reading them. As my Kindle collection continues to grow and my physical collection expands into stacks sorted by size and genre on the floor because I don’t have room for anymore bookshelves, I have had to figure out how to move on from the anxiety and dread. And the way to do that, I’ve realized, is just to admire my collection. So what if I don’t manage to read them all? Or even half of them, really, as I continue to acquire more and move on from some of the interests that have found their way onto my shelf, like:

  • All the queer YA I still haven’t made it through from the year I was on the Rainbow Book List committee. 
  • So much nonfiction — memoirs, history, social commentary — that I like to think I’ll get to, but know I won’t, because it’s so much more involved to read than romance, but that I always buy instead of borrowing from the library because I could never get through it in three weeks.  
  • Trade comics paperbacks that are years behind where the series have gotten to, because at some point I fell behind and was never able to catch up again
  • So Many Romance Novels, In So Many Formats

And more and more. Because my TBR definitely says more about my history as a reader, even in just the past five or six years, than my Books I’ve Read collection does. While my keeper shelf features bits and pieces, highlights, the best of the best, the room across the hall is a full index.

Realistically, I need to stop buying books, just because I have some underlying anxiety about what I already have in my possession. And I do want to try to go back to Reading My Own Damn Books as often as I can. But even if the books on my shelves (and my floor) and on my kindle and in the Goodreads cloud continue to grow in number, I can accept the fact that they are telling me a story about myself. (No, not the one about having no willpower, I’ve heard that one already.) 

They’re telling me about what I’ve been interested in before, and what I may find myself interested in again. And they tell me that my curiosity and need for stories is never going to stop. 

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