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A Hymn to Unread Books

July 31, 2011

I’ve had a fibro flare-up this past week, which is why I’ve been absent from the internet. And if this post doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense, I’m still in a bit of a fibro fog. But I was inspired by sorting through my library books yesterday, returning over half of them unread, and the lightness that I felt afterwards. After all, I can always request them again when I’m in the proper mood! And my sleek new library stack contains only the books I’m dying to read right now. Anyway, apologies in advance for any incoherence. -Eva

photo credit

Actually, I was originally going to title this ‘How to Avoid Feeling Overwhelmed by Unread Books,’ but that felt a bit too much like what you’d find on those blogs that are focused on increasing their traffic. Or like a self-help guru. As I fall into neither of those categories, I rephrased. But you should know that I very rarely feel overwhelmed by all of those unread books out there in the universe. In fact, when I contemplate my wishlist (it’s already over five hundred books on LT, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg), I feel delight. Why? Because that means there’s a book for any possible mood! And one that I already know about. :D While I use the phrase ‘tbr list’ when leaving comments on other blog as a convenient shorthand, I don’t actually think of it has a to-be-read list. Instead, I think of it as a pool of potentials. That way, the larger it gets, the better: I have more awareness of my choices, so that I can satisfy every whim. It’s incredible just how many books there are out there; some have survived millenia of history, others have just seen the printing press for the first time, but they’re all patiently waiting for you on the library (or bookstore) shelves. Rather intoxicating, isn’t it? And the magic about the kind of reading that we do, is that we’re reading for ourselves. Of course, we all pick up books for a variety of reasons, but each of those reasons originates within ourselves. Want to learn more about ancient Greek tragedy? There are books for that. Want to explore the evolution of twentieth century fantasy? Look at these shelves over here. Need a fast-paced story with believable characters to get caught up in? Check these titles out. And when I find the perfect book for my mood, or get lost in yet another story, or find another author whose every word perfectly resonates, it’s as if books exist solely for me. So when I look at my wishlist, or my pool of potentials, or whatever you’d like to call it, I don’t see a strictly regimented line of books, stretching from here to eternity, each demanding to be read. Instead, I see a huge pile of presents, all wrapped up and labelled to help me decide which one is perfect for now. Who doesn’t want more presents?

Have I inundated y’all with enough mixed metaphors yet? My point is this: of course I’m not going to be able to read every book in the world. But that’s not necessary! I’m an amateur reader: there are no lists of titles I have to know to further my career. I read because I have a deep-seated need to do so, a place within me that is only spoken to by books. And thus, I don’t have to spend my life reading every title ever, or every genre, or every anything. I just have to spend my reading life with books that fill that need, whatever form it might take at the present moment. And the more books I learn about, and add to my wishlist, the better the chances that I’ll find the books that do so. And if I find I guessed wrong, and abandon a book, I can just turn to that list for many more possibilities. As long as my reading time is full of books that challenge me, or delight me, or educate me, or amuse me, or fulfill any of the myriad of desires I have from reading, those books are enough. Like a scout, I shall spend my reading life following old paths and discovering new ones through the forest of available books. Without the forest’s existence, there’d be nothing to explore. And wouldn’t that be the real tragedy?

How you view your to-be-read list? Or mentally process the stunning amount of books available?

50 Comments leave one →
  1. July 31, 2011 5:28 pm

    I’m sorry to hear that you had a fibro flare-up. I get foggy brain when my hypothyroidism flares up and it’s definitely frustrating. I hope you feel better soon!

    I keep track of my tbr list via wish lists and my bookshelves. I haven’t checked for totals in a while, but I know I have over 500 unread books on the shelves and a couple hundred on my wish list.

  2. July 31, 2011 5:32 pm

    Eva, you are not going to be able to read every book in the world, but you have probably read more books than I have, and I’m jealous, and I’ve got at least three decades head start on you. You are a super-bookworm and I really admire you for that. And your blog tells me about all these books I wish I had time to read, but don’t. So thanks for that. I still learn a lot just from your reviews.

    I wish you could find a cure for your fibro. Have you tried a gluten free diet? If it comes and goes, do you know what sets it off? Or do you suffer at the whims of chance?

    • August 1, 2011 8:05 pm

      Thanks James! I’m actually gluten interolant, so yep I live gf. So far, we haven’t been able to figure out the triggers.

  3. July 31, 2011 5:44 pm

    Like you, a bit—it’s full of potential. It’s like when I work in or just plain visit the library—there’s just this excitement in the air that the next book I pick up just might be a particularly amazing one.

    I suppose it helps that I usually rely on the library and don’t have a TBR pile staring at me in my room, heh.

    • August 1, 2011 8:06 pm

      I agree: I think keeping my physically owned TBR books down to about 100-ish is helpful! But I don’t *want* to read the ones I own, lol; I’m saving them for if my library suddenly disappears.

  4. July 31, 2011 6:08 pm

    I love having a pile of books I haven’t yet read; it is a kind of pleasure. I like your picture of them as a pile of presents.

  5. Ioana permalink
    July 31, 2011 6:13 pm

    I’ve been reading your blog every day ever since I discovered it back in June. Just finished reading ‘The woman in white’ and for some reason I decided to finally gather up the courage and comment… . In 11th grade a colleague of mine said that he doesn’t have to read because if you read ten books you’ve read them all-they keep repeating themselves. Needless to say, I thought it was the most stupid thing I’ve heard in my entire life-and still do to a certain degree. My point is that maybe that idea can be transformed into something more approachable to a book addict/lover: you cannot and will not read everything that’s been written since well…since forever. Maybe my favorite novel sits patiently inside a forgotten drawer and nobody will ever read it. Who knows? But that doesn’t mean that we as book lovers have to be in a constant state of panic, even choosing quantity over quality making it a contest or worse, not enjoying the experience of reading itself. That being said, my TBR list is ever changing and expanding, sometimes letting books choose me. I don’t follow a strict list because as you said, they match my moods most of the time although I always feel like I have to catch up with my classics and whatnot. I apologize for my (lenghty) rant and hope you will feel much better soon!

    • August 1, 2011 8:07 pm

      Hi Iona! Thank you for leaving a comment, and I’m glad to see you reading Wilkie! :D That colleague sounds very silly, in the manner of teenagers. ;) That panicky state is the fastest way to sap the joy out of reading, so I know what you mean!

  6. July 31, 2011 6:19 pm

    I guess I spend so much time in bookstores that my idea of all the potential books I want to read someday is a fairly concrete image. I have an entire bookcase full of them, too. But I don’t worry about it. I’m a largely amateur reader like yourself, except for YA books I need to scout out for classroom use. I’ll go with the classic definition of amateur, one who does something for love. So I read at my whim, trash to classic lit, and enjoy as much as I can.

    I will say, that I’m much more willing to give up on a book I’m not enjoying now than I ever was, knowing that I’ll never get through the list of potentially good books that I haven’t read yet.

    • August 1, 2011 8:16 pm

      That’s the definition of amateur I use too! :) And yes, my wishlist makes it so much easier for me to abandon books.

  7. July 31, 2011 6:23 pm

    Nicely said and I couldn’t agree more!

  8. July 31, 2011 6:32 pm

    I tend to look half-full at my unread books as I have more options at my fingertips, that way.

    In other news, I’m so sorry to hear that you had a fibro flareup. Hope you’re starting to feel better this week.

  9. July 31, 2011 6:55 pm

    I get overwhelmed sometimes. I’m overwhelmed right now and gearing up for a major weed of my TBR pile(s). OF course this will just result in bookstore credit and more books!

    • August 1, 2011 8:18 pm

      I think it helps that I don’t have massive amounts of TBR books in my house…only about 100 and I’m kind of ‘saving’ them so don’t feel need to read them. LOL I’m pretty brutal about weeding out the books I own: whenever I get too many to fit in my three cases, out some go!

  10. July 31, 2011 7:10 pm

    I have various TBR lists scattered all over. I also have the mental TBR, which unfortunately usually fails me when I’m in a bookstore or library. But that’s okay – I really do like wandering around, deciding what to take home with me based on what strikes me at the moment. I definitely choose what I read based on the type of mood I’m in.

  11. July 31, 2011 7:27 pm

    I have a couple of TBR lists, one on Goodreads and one at my library. Like you I bring piles home every time I visit. It used to bother me, returning unread books, but I’ve learned that there is no way I can read everything. With the library pile I can check books to see if I really want to read them and often bring home a book I had never heard of and end up being completely engulfed by.

    Sorry to hear your Fibro acted up. Hope it clears up soon.

    • August 1, 2011 8:20 pm

      I love the library for the same reason too! I don’t feel bad about returning books unread, unless it’s an ILL.

  12. July 31, 2011 7:46 pm

    I find your thoughts just lovely. I worked my way through some similar ideas earlier this year, concluding that I will never be able to read everything that’s on my list, but that’s OK. I always have my big list of books to choose from–and to add to.

  13. July 31, 2011 8:18 pm

    “I read because I have a deep-seated need to do so, a place within me that is only spoken to by books.”

    Beautifully said. And I like the title you chose better than the self-help sounding one, anyway!

    I don’t worry too much about all the millions of books out there that I’ll never get to read, but I do spend way too much time feeling guilty about the books I already own that I haven’t read. Every time I bring a new book home either from the library or the bookstore, I feel like I’m cheating on the books I already have…

    I hope you’re feeling better!

    • August 1, 2011 8:22 pm

      That’s so funny Rayna! I’ve mentioned up above, but I prefer *not* to read the TBR books I own. lol

  14. July 31, 2011 8:24 pm

    I view my TBR list about the same way you do, as a pool of books I know that I want to read. I don’t feel a sense of obligation to my TBR list, is what I mean, whereas my TBR pile, I feel a sense of obligation to. With the books I own that I intend to read, I should be reading them first, before I read library books, because I already own them and should be making decisions about whether to keep them or toss them. But a TBR list is just words. I can take books off it any time I want. Freedom!

    • August 1, 2011 8:23 pm

      That makes sense! My TBR pile is around 100 books, and I think of it as my ‘reserve’ rather than something to read right now. I prefer to read the library books, in case one day I move to a place w/o a library! That’s a great point re: the ease of change on a wishlist. :D

  15. July 31, 2011 8:25 pm

    I love this post. I can relate to it. :) I like knowing that I will never run out of things to read. When Matt gives me a look when I come home with more books, it doesn’t bother me. Some of these books might have to wait awhile until I get around to them, but I will eventually. And they’ll be there waiting when I’m ready to dive in. When i talk about my TBR, I really mean the gigantic list of books I have written down, the unread titles still sitting on my shelves, and the books I haven’t even heard of yet.

    Your comments on being an amateur reader are interesting. I think I am also an amateur, since I am doing anything with all this bookish knowledge at the moment, but I would like to fix that. I keep toying with the idea of grad school, but I feel like I would be over my head with the classes. I read all these classics, but who knows if I actually know anything about them. I just make it up as I go along! :)

    I’ve been meaning to tell you, I got a NookColor for my birthday and it is much easier on my hands (we had this conversation a bit ago I think). I hope that your Nook is also helpful to you and saves you some pain. My arthritis doesn’t act up as badly the way it did when i was gripping a book (especially at night).

    Oh, and I finished Ceremony (LOVELY). I have to go read your review again. :)

    • August 1, 2011 8:24 pm

      I don’t think you’d be over your head in grad school! It’d probably be an adjustment at first, but I’m sure you’d rock it. :D I’m so glad your Nook is helping your arthritis: mine is definitely so much easier to read! Whenever my hands, etc. get v cranky, I switch to all ebooks. And yay for Ceremony!!!

  16. July 31, 2011 10:12 pm

    I used to feel pressure about the books on my TBR list. After all, at the age of almost 50 I can only read so many books before I die, right? Now I just revel in the idea that there are so many possibilities and I don’t worry because I will never read everything, even all the ones I want to!

  17. August 1, 2011 1:34 am

    This is a very nice article, and it’s so true! I long TBR list often seems to agitiate people, and sometimes makes reading a bit of a chore. I feel it sometimes. But I told myself sometime last month that I wasn’t obligated to read anything! If I like it, or the sound of it, I’m for plunging in!

    And speaking of tbr lists, I always mention the list of unread books I have on my shelf (it currently amounts to about 30 after steadily whittling it down from about 50 at the beginning of this year). As for the rest, like yours, they’re just my wishlist. I love the way you speak of them of presents to be unwrapped. Perfect!

    • August 1, 2011 8:25 pm

      Sounds like we have similar attitudes Risa! :)

  18. August 1, 2011 5:05 am

    I love having a stack of unread books (mine totters at about 500), every mood can be filled and if I was ever strong enough to complete a book buying ban I could last a good 4 years. I also love having the library close and amazon to hand.
    I actually visually shuddered the other day when a friend said he had 5 books on his tbr pile, that would panic me way me than my stack. What do you do I you don’t fancy any of those, amazon takes a few days and the book shops near us are very limited! I would have broken out in a cold sweat.

    • August 1, 2011 8:25 pm

      That would panic me too! I don’t like it when my library pile gets much below 20, because I feel like I don’t have enough for any mood. lol

  19. August 1, 2011 8:03 am

    Sorry to hear about your fibro. Hope you feel better soon.
    Sometimes I just feel like reading short books, less than 200 pages so that I could get through more books quickly than average. Long books just hold me back and think about how many books I could read if I were to read just “War and Peace”? :)

    • August 1, 2011 8:26 pm

      Maybe counting pages instead of books would help? Or line up lots of novellas to follow your W&P experience! :D

  20. August 1, 2011 10:45 am

    I really relate to this post, Eva, and I hope I can pick up your image of viewing the TBR pile as a “selection of potential presents” instead of a to-do list. I tend to view my TBR list as titles to be read and checked off, but I need to remember that I am not in grad school and I don’t *have* to read anything. So good on you for giving a well-timed reminder that the future titles are not a to-do…

    Love your blog, btw. And sorry to hear about your fibro flare up.
    liz in texas

    • August 1, 2011 8:26 pm

      Thanks Liz! I’m always extra excited to ‘meet’ another Texas blogger. :D

  21. Ruthiella permalink
    August 1, 2011 5:23 pm

    Eva, I am your opposite. A tottering TBR pile panics me! In fact, sometimes just perusing book blogs panics me because there are so many great suggestions for books by so many great bloggers that I haven’t read yet and here I am spending time reading ABOUT books instead investing time in actually reading books. I keep my goodreads TBR list small, around 20 books at a time. And like others who have commented here, I tick those books off as I go along.

    • August 1, 2011 8:27 pm

      I’m glad you’ve figured out a system that works for you! The time factor (reading about books v reading books) is something that stresses me out too sometimes. :)

  22. August 1, 2011 8:31 pm

    Thank you to everyone who left a comment; I loved reading about everyone’s relationships with their TBR, both physical and ‘virtual’!

  23. Caroline permalink
    August 2, 2011 2:34 am

    Sorry to hear you’re having a fibro flare-up, Eva! I think your post makes perfect sense, and in fact it has given me some very timely advice: I’ve been in a mini-reading slump lately, mostly due to feeling TBR stress due to the large number of library books/unread books I have waiting for me. Returning all but 2 books to the library, and choosing one of my own books to reread (ignoring the ones I haven’t yet read) has helped a bit, but your post really has helped me, too. (See, you should have given it the “self-help” title!) So thank you! Hope you feel better soon.

    • August 4, 2011 10:58 am

      Oh yay, I’m glad I helped w a bit Caroline! Reading slumps are the worst, and library book stress is easily remedied. ;)

  24. August 2, 2011 1:10 pm

    Eva, you always have a positive take on things! Love how you’ve discussed this. I have a huge ongoing TBR (many that I own) and it’s only in the last year or two that I’ve really come to truly understand that I will never read all the books that I want to. But that list (and the piles) washing around in my head are a comfort to me in any case :) I only start to feel that there are too many when I start to lose mental track — then I know it’s time to go through and remove the ones that no longer appeal. I am pretty good at keeping a huge mental organizational system — but it only works for books ;)

  25. August 3, 2011 9:01 am

    ” Like a scout, I shall spend my reading life following old paths and discovering new ones through the forest of available books.”

    Love this! My tbr list is huge and continues to grow. I know I won’t read every book on it and I actually don’t want to read them all. My list is a place where I put titles that sound interesting, that I may want to read, and titles that I definitely want to read. It is more of a memory aid in many respects than anything else.

  26. August 3, 2011 10:29 am

    I love this Eva! I sometime wish I had (lots) more reading time as I just want to read so many books, but I agree, it’s definitely a good thing having them all to choose between!

  27. August 3, 2011 11:00 am

    I used to worry about the number of books that I wanted to read and not having time for them all. But then I relaxed and realized that I could prune, be selective and make lots of lists. That brought me joy :)

  28. August 3, 2011 4:25 pm

    you put us all in the shade eva I alway worry about not reading enough but am a lazy readert as could read more than I do ,all the best stu

  29. August 3, 2011 8:56 pm

    This is exactly how I feel about my to-read list! (And my Netflix list too, while I’m at it.) It’s just my own customized list of what’s out there that may interest me at some point. I use goodreads for my to-read list and I like clicking on a random page of that list and saying, hey, why don’t I put a library hold on that one.

    • August 4, 2011 10:59 am

      That’s a good point about my Netflix queue: I use ti the same way! :)

  30. August 8, 2011 11:25 am

    This is so great, Eva. I always get so depressed because I can never seem to get through my TBR pile – there are books on there that I bought years ago but still haven’t gotten around to reading. And my Amazon wishlist is now five pages long full of books I’d rather read but *won’t* until I’ve finished my TBR.

    But I like your perspective on it. :) Makes me feel better.

  31. stacybuckeye permalink
    August 19, 2011 9:08 pm

    Great post. I often feel overwhelmed by all the book in my house waiting to be read and that’s not considering the 10 page list I have that I’m constantly adding to in the margins. I used to feel the need to finish aver book that I own. If I started I was going to finish it no matter what. As I approach my 40th birthday I realize that life’s too short ot finish every book so I need to let that go :)
    You post has made me feel better and less stressed. Thanks, Eva!

  32. August 22, 2011 2:31 pm

    I’m in total agreement with you on this post. You said it beautifully. I especially love the term “amateur reader” which describes me too.


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