I’ve noticed over the last little while that everyone I know – even the prolific readers – tend to have this horrible looming “to be read” pile of books. Sometimes the pile is real and physical; sometimes it is metaphorical, or is a list of books in their Kindle or other reading device. Sometimes it’s a GoodReads list – whatever.
The interesting thing to me about it is how subject to all the vagaries of anxiety disorder these lists become, and how distressed people get about their inability to make them shorter – often in a “hah hah only serious!!!” faux-joking way.
“How do I get myself to stop adding books to this?!!!” “How do I stop reading fanfic instead?!”
What strikes me about that is how much it seems to turn the whole operation into an obligation. Into a chore. This seems to me, to put it mildly, suboptimal.
You see, if there’s one thing I know for a fact about anxiety, whether of the full-blown clinical sort or even the milder everyday sort that doesn’t really ruin life but still causes difficulty, it’s that the more something turns into an obligation, into a job, into a chore, the more likely it is that you’re going to put it off.
Especially if it’s something that’s supposed to be fun.
Because hilariously at the same time, the same people being drowned by their supposedly-voluntary recreational to-read list often manage to read huge volumes when it’s For Work or For School or For The Book They’re Writing. When it’s actually, wholly and formally a chore, things are fine! When they can actually say “ugh okay I have to read this book”, they can read the book.
But when we’re talking about something that’s supposedly for recreation, the more you make it obligatory, the less fun it’s going to seem and the less motivated you’re going to be to pick it up. As far as I can tell, and I’ve looked at quite a few cases, this is a really common reason for a huge, long To Read list.
Does that describe you? Do you have a huge long To Read list that nags you, that you think of guiltily? Do things just seem to pile onto it? I have some suggestions.
As with all suggestions, if they don’t seem to apply to you, never mind them!
1. Ask yourself why this book is on your To Read List.
That’s not a rhetorical question (I’m bad at rhetorical questions and tend to think they don’t really exist), it’s a question that really deserves an answer.
You might be surprised at the honest answer. And at that point, I think it might be worthwhile to do a couple of different possible things.
See, for example: you may be treating the whole To Read List as one big thing, but I bet there are different reasons for things to be on there. I bet some of them are “I should be reading more of X kind of book”, for example (books by female authors, books by queer authors, books by authors of colour, books by working class authors, books by whatever, books that feature Y or Q kind of protagonist, books that . . . .), and I bet some of them are “this is a friend’s book”, and some of them are “book that got recommended to me” and . . .so on .
The thing is, these are all very different reasons to read a book, and not one of them I’ve mentioned yet is actually “this book looked like something I wanted to read for fun.”
Which sort of brings us to the next question I think is important –
2. Ask yourself what the function of reading is in your life right now, and also what resources you have to dedicate to reading right now.
Reading fulfills all kinds of roles. It’s a very effective way of finding and absorbing information! But it’s worth asking what kind of role and what kind of time and energy you have for reading right now.
Often huge TBR piles happen in the lives of people who at one time or another had the time, energy and inclination to read anything and everything, and do so fast, and so never bothered to think about this before . . . and then something in our lives changed.
As a teenager I never had a “TBR list” because nothing had time to stay on there for more than a couple days. Conversely at this point in my life I don’t have a TBR list (except for actual work or research purposes) because I damn well know that unless I pick it up, start reading and finish it (as I did with The Twisted Ones a couple weeks ago) it’s just not going to get read.
What happened in the interim? Depression, mostly, and a side-order of anxiety disorder. It ate a lot of my ability to parse printed words into meaning, and as a result unless I hit just the right mood at the right time and a text is easily accessible, reading for pleasure doesn’t really exist for me anymore. It definitely doesn’t keep place with writing fiction, and all things considered, I get more benefit out of writing fiction than I do out of reading it most of the time.
Few people are quite as dramatic a shift as me: most people are somewhere in the middle, usually closer to the “reading is still joyful” and that’s great (I’d actually hate to think more people have suffered the same loss of a once-joyful activity that I have, because it sucks). But people do tend to still have started out with the “I have little to no To Read pile because I just am reading all the time” and now are like, why is this piling up?
I can suggest some reasons:
a) You have less time and more calls on it. Reading fiction is a fairly solitary activity, and it’s not one that you can do while doing other things very easily: even exercising is difficult to do while reading, compared to other things.
b) You have less energy and more calls on it. Why? Any number of reasons, including stress, health, a job, a kid, friends, friends’ health and stress, community commitments, activism, world politics stressing the hell out of you – who knows!
And you’re probably thinking WELL I KNOW I HAVE LESS TIME AND LESS ENERGY – but I invite you to stop and think about that for a moment.
Because if you imprinted on “how to read books/how to collect books/how to relate to books” at a time when you had a lot of time and energy to dedicate to books (or, perhaps less happily, when you were dedicating time and energy to books that meant that other things in your life slid and were neglected, which gods know I did more than once in my life), your subconscious assumption is probably “I need to pounce on every title and every thing that looks interesting, because I will soon desperately be in need of a book.”
You know how people who deal with food insecurity can end up food-hoarding in non-useful ways because it’s hard for them to believe that they will, next week, have the same access to food as they have right now? Book-hoarding can actually work the same way – and be just as useless, while building up this huge PILE of things-to-read that serve very little purpose but to make you anxious and unhappy about how much you’re not reading.
So this brings back the question: what is the function of reading in your life right now, and what do you have to dedicate to it right now?
When I would need A New Book Every Week (at least) because the other options were terrible, I was also able to interest myself in huge wide ranges of topics in books, and to coax myself into reading books that weren’t immediately gratifying, because I needed books: I needed something to read. I needed to fill that time and space in my head.
These days firstly I don’t get that reward just from reading, period, and also I have other things to fill that time and space in my head, and that means when it comes to purely recreational reading I can and indeed have to be very choosy. Most people won’t have to be as choosy as I do (see also: how limited I am), but this is still something to consider.
For instance a very common refrain I hear is “how do I stop reading fic” (that is, fanfic) or “how do I stop reading trashy romances” or “how do I stop reading these cozy mysteries and read the rest of these great books on my to-do list” or whatever.
Here’s a better question: why – if you’re honest with yourself, truly honest – is it that the fic, the romances, the mysteries, whatever, are so much more appealing to read and rewarding to read than those supposedly great books?
As a society we have a snobbery about books, about what counts as “real” literature and “proper” reading. One of the answers to that question above – or at least, one of the distressed responses – is often “but I want to stretch myself!!!” or “I want to challenge myself!!”
Let me offer a slightly gentle suggestion: actually, you want to be, or be seen as, the kind of person who wants to “stretch” or “challenge” themselves with reading, because we as a society consider those people to be “better” than everyone else. And that’s not an unworthy goal!
But here’s the thing: most people actually get bored if they’re not being challenged and will seek challenges out, one way or another. So if you’re not finding the time to read those “challenging” books, here’s another question:
What, in your life, is already challenging you?
You may discover, as you think about it, that between work, school, kids, friends, relationships, family, responsibilities, the stress of the world right now, whatever, you’re actually being challenged constantly. Maybe being challenged too much.
So no wonder when offered the choice between a nice cozy mystery with an easy solution, or a familiar soulmate AU fic, or even a familiar tropey horror novel, and the latest piece of award winning fiction that’s going to immerse you in the agonizing challenges of the world, your brain goes “you know what you can go jump in a lake, give me the fun stuff.”
So suggestion the third –
3. Be honest about your reading desires, your reading needs, and remember that this is a recreational reading list, not a sworn quest which if you fail you will be forever damned.
Maybe there’s still things on that list you really do think you would benefit from getting through. Maybe there’s stuff you actually need for work or life, it’s just on the same undifferentiated list. Maybe you’re just resentful as hell that your brain is crapping out on you.
I get it! But you’re still going to do better tackling it if you’re honest and genuine about this stuff.
So first, ask yourself whether this is really that important. For anyone who needs to hear it, I’m going to give you this official permission as a librarian:
It is okay to abandon your To Read Pile, totally give up on it, and just read the stuff that’s easy and engaging (or not read at all) for a while. HERE IS YOUR PERMISSION.
I really want to underscore this: your worth and value and intelligence as a human is not indicated by your fucking booklist, pardon my swearing. This is a disgusting tendency in our culture, this idea that it is, and it’s actually a really toxic bit of what’s indeed actually often called “bookworm” culture, but let’s be honest, reading lots of books does not indicate you’re a better person. And taking a year off to read absolute faffy fluff and let your brain rest is also not an indication you’re a worse person. It’s allowed.
If you want, take a year and read absolutely nothing but fic or erotica or romance or mysteries or horror or space opera or nothing at all. I bless you upon this thread.
Because here’s the other thing: one of two things is likely to happen if you do this: one, you will find out that you’re actually tired and worn out and this is more restoring than being anxious about your to-read list, and hooray! What a great revelation.
The other is that you will actually get bored, and start wanting to read other stuff and hey presto, let’s pick up a book off the pile.
Second, if that genuinely doesn’t seem appealing, I’d recommend breaking your current pile or list up into some categories.
Acknowledge and own the list of “these are things that are probably going to be exhausting to read but I think are valuable”! TAG THEM. Label them. Then you can be honest about either needing to make a commitment to reading them like you would a work or school text, or needing to wait until you have the right time.
Label the list of “someone recommended this to me but I have no familiarity with it and am a bit wary”. Label the list of “my friend wrote this and I feel Obligated”. Label the list “this had a pretty cover but I’m intimidated.”
Be honest to a fault about why you’ve picked up this book.
Why? Because then maybe one day you’re feeling like “I want to do something socially rewarding” – well that’s a great time to pick up the Book-of-a-Friend. But maybe another day you’re feeling brave, or contrary – that’s the right time to pick up Book-that-Intimidates-Me.
If you genuinely feel like you spend too much time reading The Wrong Stuff, because maybe you read it automatically but then feel deeply unsatisfied or bored with it, have a little postit note or something that says “don’t go to AO3, go read [book title].”
But above all, remember it’s supposed to be fun.
Remember that you might be tired, genuinely just tired. Remember that it’s totally fine to just read what you want because the rest of life is difficult.
Remember that a To Read List just represents a list of titles you don’t want to forget – not a binding contract where if you die with these books unread you will be damned for all time.
Let this list stop being an object of anxiety.
(And go read that thing you want to read. Or maybe watch a TV show. It’s fine, I promise.)