Reading Habits

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace the TBR Stack

I promptly subscribed to Oliver Berkman’s newsletter.

That’s not to say I didn’t know Berkman before—I loved his Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, which I’ve written about before in this column—but, in Internet fashion, I didn’t know he had a newsletter. (Who can keep track?) As soon as I found it, I signed up, and the first thing that came into my inbox was this string of extremely relevant words to my life:

“I don’t think you should think of ‘to-read’ books as something you have to finish, but as something you can choose from.”

Does the same bell ring in your head?

I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who already have this mindset and are skeptical of those of us bemoaning the state of our TBR (to be read) piles, whether they’re piles, shelves, entire bookcases, or rooms. (I’m not that bad yet. Still.) How can you complain about a bounty like this? I imagined they said. What’s wrong with you?

My questions are a long list, most of which I won’t enumerate here. But this problem is not just my problem. You can’t venture into a bookish online space without running into the TBR problem—which, I have to admit, is a bit of a death problem in general. I am an anxious person. I am in a hurry about time. I’m trying not to be.

But I still exist on the internet, which is full of enthusiasm, opinions, and curiosities that are hard to ignore even if you want to. Every day, I hear about another book I want to read: My current tabs include The Last Fire Season by Manjula Martin: The History and Immediacy of Personal and Pyronatural Fire (not available until January), or the pages of Anna Kornbluh’s The Style of Too Late Capitalism. My reading spreadsheet has a whole tab full of books I want to read one day, some of which have been sitting there for far too long, and I already can’t remember why they were added in the first place. (I strongly encourage you to take note of why you add a book to such a list.)

I don’t believe that reading should be a competition, but at the same time, I look at my TBR and feel hopeless: Why has it been so long since I’ve read Black Future Month? Why is The Average Bad Girl still sitting there? How about the book I bought in Australia in 2014, or The State of the Art by Iain M. Banks that I ordered from the UK (because I couldn’t find it here)? Do you want to know how many books on this shelf I bought while working at the bookstore? It’s been since 2015, and of course, I won’t. But I remember them every time I see them.

What Berkman means, if he will forgive my interpretation, is that it’s not a useful way of looking at it. This is not a to-do list. It is not a mountain with a summit that the human mind or body can reach. Huge TBR heaps are not a bug; they are a feature. (If you, like me, have only recently moved, you may have a hard time grasping the concept. I understand.) He calls the problem of “too many needles,” which he borrows from Nicholas Carr when he writes:

“When we complain about information overload, we are usually complaining about environmental overload. It’s a whole different beast. Environmental overload does not involve looking for a needle in a haystack. It involves piles of needles the size of haystacks.”

A pile of needles the size of a haystack. A bunch of bookcase-sized options. This is something that cannot be optimized or reduced in productivity because (a) there really is never enough time, (b) it’s not a to-do list or series of tasks, and (c) we’re talking about the art of experience, not some sort of bookishness culture, God bless, please forgive me for putting the words in this order.

Berkman’s answer is to think of your TBR mountain “as a river (a stream that flows past you from which you can pick a few select items) rather than a bucket (which requires you to empty it)”. As an ex-hippie from the Pacific Northwest, I’m particularly fond of the imagery here: buckets are things used to catch leaks or save boats, neither of which are particularly pleasant experiences. The river is something you stare at, float on, and admire; it’s something natural and wild, not plastic and tamed.

At the best of times—when I’m not overwhelmed by bigger problems in the world, worrying about the smoke my friends are breathing or the virus people are still spreading or rising sea levels or student loans or the general destructive trends of the world of late, full stop—when I look at books that I haven’t read, I do seea river, a river absolutely full of stories that will become their own magic when I get to them, their own journey. I don’t have to read the next shiny pop article right away. Neither do you. I don’t have to keep up with a series or predict the future or know everything about an author before I dig into their full recap list. I have to do what I always do: try to read widely, variedly, with passion; try to read things that fill the well of my writing. Or rather, store water in that well, which is never full and never runs out.

The title of this post is deliberately optimistic. I haven’t learned to stop worrying. I’m learning, though. Slowly, belatedly, but better late than never. All these books piling up in front of me are bounties, not quests. All the books in the library, all the books I can read, will read, might read: all the same.

The river didn’t even notice how I looked at it. It just keeps flowing. Or sitting and collecting dust, if we set aside the metaphor. But that’s okay too. After all, exposure to books is part of the process.

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