Our Reading Lives

Buying Books Like I’m Immortal: Death and the TBR

Rebecca Hussey

Staff Writer

Rebecca holds a PhD in English and is a professor at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. She teaches courses in composition, literature, and the arts. When she’s not reading or grading papers, she’s hanging out with her husband and son and/or riding her bike and/or buying books. She can't get enough of reading and writing about books, so she writes the bookish newsletter "Reading Indie," focusing on small press books and translations. Newsletter: Reading Indie Twitter: @ofbooksandbikes

I’ve been buying books like never before. Buying books is a pleasure, a joy, a release. It’s a way to feel like I’m buying possibilities for the future. I buy books for my 8-year-old son, to give him the same pleasure and possibility. I buy them for my husband and friends. My rate of book-buying has increased during the pandemic because it cheers me up. We all need cheering up.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that the feeling getting a new book gives me: it’s a feeling of openness and space. I’ve bought myself potential. This is a book that won’t just give me hours of entertainment and absorption, but it will become a part of my brain, it will take its place next to all the other books I’ve read, on my shelf and in my mind. It will become part of me. I could be a new person because of this book.

Each new book also opens up new channels of possibility because, as every avid reader knows, reading books leads to more even books. I think of all the areas I like to read in: contemporary literary fiction, essay collections, memoirs, books in translation, genre-bending nonfiction books, contemporary poetry, collections of letters and diaries, small-press books, books by and about Romantic-era writers, weird novellas, group biographies of writers, books about books, craft books, and on and on and on. Every book I buy opens each reading interest up a little further.

I learn about new books and authors because the author I’m reading raves about them. I discover I want to read a writer’s backlist. A blurb or review of a book by another writer resonates with me, and I want to read that person’s books as well. Someone on Twitter tells me that I because I liked X author, I will probably like Y as well. The TBR list grows. The books I’m currently reading offer all this richness while I’m reading them, and the books I decide to buy hold the promise that they will do this for me in the future. They will not only introduce me to new books, but they will introduce me to new fields of reading that I will love. I don’t know what they are, but I know they are out there.

But! I don’t have time for all this! I’m not a fast reader, but that doesn’t matter. I could be the fastest reader in the world, and I’d never read all the books I want to. I hate to admit it, but…I will die before I can read all the books I want to. They multiply out before me, more every day. I’m accumulating books faster than I can read them.

Some numbers: in my personal library, I have 2,194 print books. Of those books, 938 are on my TBR list, unread. I have 531 ebooks, 379 of which are unread, and 53 audiobooks, 12 of which are unread. That means I own 1,329 books I haven’t read. (I know all this because I keep stats on LibraryThing.)

Over the last ten years, I’ve acquired about 100 print books a year on average. So far in 2021, as of the end of July, I’ve acquired 168. The number of ebooks I buy has varied a lot, as I loved reading ebooks for awhile and then stopped loving it. But I have averaged about 50 ebooks a year for the last ten years. My audiobook-buying habit is fairly limited — so far.

Some of those books were sent to me for free by publishers, and I can’t fully control that, but I am pretty good about getting rid of galleys I won’t read, so for the most part, these are books I plan to read eventually. I also keep a list of books I want to read but that I don’t own (I do this on Goodreads). Right now, that list has 1,158 books on it.

Now, how many do I read? In a good year, it’s 100 or so, counting all formats. Last year was my highest ever, with 111. In 2017, which was a terrible year, I read 56. Usually it’s between 80 and 100. Only some of the books I read come from my personal collection, as I love to read books from the library, too. So I’ve been accumulating 150+ books per year while reading between 70 and 90, after accounting for library books. This is how I ended up owning 1,329 books that I haven’t read. You can see the problem. That number is going up all the time.

There’s another issue that weighs on me, one that is uncomfortable to talk about, but that gets more pressing the older I get. My husband and I have thousands of print books. My son is an only child. If we keep those books until we die, he will be left having to dispose of them. Who knows how that will work out — anything can happen — but there is a real possibility he will be left having to clear out a house stuffed with books. I don’t want to burden him with this.

I’m also aware that buying all these books means spending a lot of money on entertainment, and it’s entertainment I might die before experiencing, or entertainment I might lose interest in because it takes me so long to get to it. As a privileged person, maybe — surely — I’m not spending my money well. Wouldn’t it be better to send at least some of that money to social and political causes I care about? I already do donate money, but I could always send more.

Even with all these questions lingering in my mind, I still keep buying books. I’m buying them like I’m immortal, like I will actually get to all of them because I have endless time. On the one hand, this habit is a problem, a problem that is based on delusions of immortality. On the other, it feels life-affirming. It feels life-affirming during a time of pandemic and social and political upheaval.

I’m not sure what to do with all this, except to think that maybe as we emerge from the pandemic, my need to buy books will lessen. Maybe as I get older, I’ll get better about getting rid of books I won’t read. Maybe I’ll use the library more. I’m not sure, but in the meantime, it’s a comfort to have huge TBR stacks that will keep me going for a long, long time.