You will never read all the things, and that’s okay

You know, although I would feel a little funny about letting my TBR pile get as big as some of you, this is because I am not organized enough to have a spreadsheet — I’m so impressed by those of you who manage to keep up with a spreadsheet! — and so I would fear losing most of the titles into the morass of unread books.

It definitely is not because I think there’s anything wrong with having more books on my TBR pile than I can actually get to.

Even with a mere 250 (or so) books that I actually have in my hands, I fairly often do the same thing Mac (from the comments) says he does: Avoiding buying books that I really want until I am actually ready to start them that second, for fear that if I buy them earlier, they’ll be lost within the, ah, cosmic biblio-volcano. Though my volcano is less cosmic, and I’m more inclined to buy books as they come out if I know the author personally or just generally want to support the author.

I don’t actually feel guilty about not reading all the things the minute they come out, even if that means losing out on the experience of reading a particular book that everyone else is already talking about, and I definitely don’t feel guilty about knowing I’ll die with a significant part of my TBR pile unread. I would feel a bit guilty about failing to support an author with a prompt purchase of a new title, but nothing else connected with the TBR pile makes me feel at all guilty.

The truth is, we will all die without having read most of the books that we would have loved, whether we put them on our TBR piles or not. A smaller TBR pile just means you are keeping less close track of the books you’re not reading. This post by Linda Holmes is totally correct: We really are all going to miss nearly everything.

Holmes contrasts the mental act of “culling” with that of “surrender.” Culling, she says, happens when you declare that All Romance Novels Are Terrible, or that All TV Is Awful. This protects you from feeling guilty about ignoring all romance novels or all TV and reduces the amount of great stuff you are aware of missing. But it’s an illusion, because the truth is that you would undoubtedly love some of the massive number of romance novels or TV shows that you’re ignoring.

Here is what Holmes says about “surrender:”

Surrender, on the other hand, is the realization that you do not have time for everything … and that this fact doesn’t have to threaten your sense that you are well-read. Surrender is the moment when you say, “I bet every single one of those 1,000 books I’m supposed to read before I die is very, very good, but I cannot read them all, and they will have to go on the list of things I didn’t get to.”

It is the recognition that well-read is not a destination; there is nowhere to get to, and if you assume there is somewhere to get to, you’d have to live a thousand years to even think about getting there, and by the time you got there, there would be a thousand years to catch up on.

Now, my goal isn’t to be well-read, particularly. It’s to enjoy reading. I avoid all computer games and I almost entirely stopped watching TV, but I know perfectly well I am missing out. I just prefer reading and can’t do everything.

David said in the comments to the previous post that he re-reads less than he used to because his TBR pile is so huge. I get that!

But because I don’t care whether I read all the books on my TBR pile, I don’t feel overwhelmed and I do feel quite free to re-read extensively. I grant you, partly this is because I can often (not always) re-read fiction when working on my own writing, whereas reading new-to-me fiction is much more likely to interfere. But mostly it’s because I enjoy re-reading. Since I’m reading strictly to enjoy the experience, not to conquer the TBR pile or keep up with the buzz over newly-released titles, if I want to re-read a book, I do. I mean, I’ve read The Goblin Emperor three times now, maybe four, and it’s only been out since March.

Amanda Nelson had an interesting post about this at BookRiot not so long ago, too:

One of our own recently wrote about her TBR and had to be defended from accusations of being a hoarder, a term that comes up frequently whenever someone talks in public about having a personal library…. There’s not a number at which a TBR becomes suddenly immoral. You’re not in an objective safe zone at 99 and in the Very Bad Person Zone at 100. You don’t need to apologize for loving an activity and owning the items you like in order to do that activity.

I wasn’t aware that anyone had the nerve to make any such accusation, but listen, you know when you should be ashamed about being a hoarder? When you are hoarding living animals that you are not taking care of properly. Full stop. Otherwise, I doubt your collection of whatever is doing anybody any harm and you certainly have no reason to feel guilty or overwhelmed simply because you’ve organized some fraction of the endless heap of books you would like to get to, rather than ignoring the existence of the heap. This is why I feel that posts like this one at Book Revel are completely off base. As far as I’m concerned, an extensive TBR pile is something to celebrate, not something to worry about.

Granted that if you have 4000 books on your TBR pile, you may find it useful to cut it down to 2200 as David commented that he managed to do. But you cut down your TBR pile to make the list more useful, not because there’s anything intrinsically wrong with not getting to all the books this year.

Given that a picture’s worth 1000 words, this cartoon by Theresa Romain pretty much perfectly captures my attitude toward the TBR pile:


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4 thoughts on “You will never read all the things, and that’s okay”

  1. Are you challenging me to read my entire TBR?! Haha.

    I had to make peace long ago with the fact that I’d never finish all I want to finish. When I was doing my book purge last year, one of the things I tried to ask myself as I moved down the list was, “Will I *really* want to read this?” (I try to put notes by most of my books with why I want to read it, whether it’s a sequel, or touches a trope I love, or just b/c it sounds bad-ass.) When I look at the list with that view, it really makes me realize, “No, I will probably never get to this, and I wouldn’t feel bad about it.”

    I used to re-read more before I started following blogs and actively seeking out new authors instead of reading the same 10 authors over and over again.

    My biggest problem now is disappointing my friends when they suggest books to me, and I can only say, “It’s on my list! I’ll get to it… some day…”

    (I still have a book–by you!–that I got 4 years ago that I still haven’t gotten around to yet…)

  2. >I had to make peace long ago with the fact that I’d never finish all I want to finish.

    Exactly! It’s like kind of wanting to get into hang gliding; it would no doubt be super cool, but it’s not likely to be something I actually ever do.

    On the other hand, I can’t really imagine sticking mainly to ~10 authors. That’s kind of like sticking to about the same weekly menu, which I know many people do but also can’t imagine.

  3. Macs is a she, btw :) The name is ambiguous on purpose.

    I think you really hit the nose on it with this: “A smaller TBR pile just means you are keeping less close track of the books you’re not reading.” This is why my TBR is in the thousands; I keep extremely close track and put on my radar every book that might even be remotely interesting to me.

    When I was a kid I loved to read, but there was no fiction in the house. My family was very puritanical about anything that wasn’t working or studying. For lack of things to read I read the encyclopedia and my mother’s medical textbooks and my aunt’s cell biology magazines. Luckily, I did inherit the science bug, but I longed for actual stories.

    I couldn’t find the kind of books I wanted to read as a child. I knew that, statistically, at least one of the countless books in existence should be a book I would love, but I didn’t know how to find it. Library was no help and the books for school were horrid enough to turn anyone from reading.

    Finally ,when I got older, I found a reader friend who showed me the way. I realized I had missed out on years of books. Books that had been released new in those years when I was desperate for things to read and I never knew!

    So now I am overcompensating. I may never get to read them all, but I am going to be darn sure that if I wake up and think, “I’d really like to read something like X today” that something like X is going to be on my shelves. It’s too awful to be in want of a book.

  4. Oh! Well, I’ll remember that. I have to say, sometimes I wonder how I’d be doing as a writer if I’d gone with initials or an ambiguous name.

    Also: I literally cannot imagine what it would have been like growing up in a home with that attitude toward fiction. If I knew a family like that, I would undoubtedly start smuggling books to the kids. What a shame that your library and school couldn’t better fill the gap. No wonder you have a huge TBR pile now!

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