Books Magazine

Keeping Up with the Literary Joneses (or The Tyranny of the TBR)

Posted on the 21 February 2013 by Isabel Costello @isabelcostello

TBRBefore I joined Twitter and started blogging (both less than two years ago) I had never even come across the term TBR (To Be Read).  Once I’d finished reading the novel for my monthly book group, I’d take a casual look on my shelves (always well stocked because the book stall at the school jumble sale is like a branch of Waterstones), go to the library or buy a book someone had said was good.  Many – I would imagine most – booklovers approach their reading in similarly relaxed fashion, but as I’ve come to realise, quite a few don’t….

The piece I wrote a year ago How Do You Choose Which Books to Read still gets plenty of hits and words to that effect appear in my blog search terms almost every day.  Perhaps because I’d already decided to write something about TBRs, I’ve recently became very aware of people mentioning theirs on Twitter and it’s fascinating.  Both online and in real life I’m drawn to bookish people and I do realise not everybody spends half their time planning their next read, but for those who do, it’s quite a preoccupation and often something of a burden.  TBRs are frequently referred to as mountains, teetering piles, skyscrapers and even monsters but the one thing they all have in common is that they are ever growing.  In addition to all the books and authors we already haven’t read, new ones are appearing all the time.

When will we ever read all this stuff?

I accept that I’m a culprit, one of many.  I can’t have a five minute conversation without recommending at least one book and since the whole aim of the Literary Sofa is to raise awareness of the best new fiction, I’m delighted when someone says they’re adding a novel they’ve discovered here to their TBR.  I also love getting recommendations in return and since I’ve become immersed in the book world, I waste far less time on mediocre novels – why would I, when I keep hearing about brilliant ones? That’s the advantage of discussing books with people whose taste you trust.

Confession Time

If you answer YES to ANY of these 3 questions, keep reading and if not, Congratulations (but I’m not sure I believe you):

  • Do you ever say ‘I can’t buy/borrow any more books until I’ve read all the ones I’ve got?’
  • Do you feel bad about not having read certain books?
  • Are there books on your TBR you feel you ‘should’ read rather than really want to?

I’ve experienced all of these at various points but I’m over it.  Now I’m in the fortunate position of new releases landing on my doormat practically every day (see photo for a single week’s worth) I’ve had to accept that I can’t possibly keep up, even as a fast reader.  So, I may not read them all but I do look at them, and the position of Next on my TBR can change from day to day depending on what turns up, what mood I’m in and what I’ve just read – I try to avoid reading novels with similar themes or settings back to back.

It makes me laugh when people think I’m well-read, because I don’t think so at all.  My knowledge of the English classics is distinctly sketchy and since my excuse is that I studied French and German literature at university, I should probably be mortified to admit I’ve never read a word of Proust.  I haven’t read either of Hilary Mantel’s Booker winning novels and whilst I don’t doubt how brilliantly written they are, I feel no obligation to read them over the dozens of books which excite me far more.  I did one of my Twitter soundings asking which books people felt bad for not reading (or giving up on) and as usual, the results were very frank and entertaining, including Jane Austen, George Eliot, Sylvia Plath.  (My attempts to Storify them have come to nothing so far but when the site decides to co-operate I’ll add it here).   A few brave souls even admitted pretending to have read a book – not surprisingly the most common answer to both questions was James Joyce’s Ulysses (which I haven’t read, obviously).  When I was a teenager I repeatedly lied about having read Tolkien to a rather creepy friend of my grandparents who was obsessed with him.  It’s a miracle he didn’t rumble me.

Now there is no way I’d bother pretending to have read something.  If it’s more than a few years old, sometimes I genuinely can’t remember if I’ve actually read it or just heard about it. (That’s a subject for another day, the books we’ve read and can’t recall.)  I now keep an ongoing list of the books I read and find that really useful.

This is for you if you’ve ever felt oppressed by your TBR and the impossibility of ever getting to the end of it.  I was at a book launch recently and had some very interesting conversations which brought it home that nobody, not even incredibly well-read people working in publishing, can have read every author worth reading (Richard Ford, in this case).  I also proved that it’s possible to embarrass yourself even with the novels you have read when I referred to Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections as The Commitments.  Not sure whether to blame the wine or my memory for that… (Supposedly one of my favourite novels; think I’d better re-read it to find out why).

Relax.  Read what you want to, and above all, enjoy it.

Hoping to hear your tales of TBRs, literary inferiority complexes and outrageous lies.


My personal go-to guru for book recommendations is top literary editor Gillian Stern (@gillybethstern) who has introduced me to countless amazing titles and is a fellow lover of American literature.

Many thanks to the following for their contributions to the debate on Twitter:  Pete Domican, Isabel Rogers, Louise Walters, Tracey Upchurch, Ruby Speechley, Celine West, Cariad Martin, Claire Snook, Alice Slater, Jonathan Riverhorse, Victoria Lamb, Claire Strickett and Naomi Frisby.  You can stop beating yourselves up now (except for IR, who’s read Ulysses.  Medal’s in the post!)

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