February 23, 2012

The Dreaded TBR Pile: One Approach

I'm not some OCD guy or anything (just look at my office in the library, ugh) but I do have a few little systems in place that help me get some things done.  Some of them help me make decisions, some of them help me from having to make decisions.  The most obvious example is the tickler file I keep in my office.

Donalyn Miller (@donalynbooks) tweeted recently that her pile of To Be Read books was so big she might start choosing them by color.  That got me thinking that I should share my new approach to my reading list.

Now I must take a moment to define my terms.  I consider my TBR (To Be Read) pile the books I actually own or have been given that I mean to read.  But I also like to keep lists of books I may want to read someday.  Well that has gotten completely out of hand.  I have lists of books I'd like to read on my Goodreads site and on my public library site and on my Amazon wish list and scribbled on notecards.  Now those lists are even better than my actual TBR books because they cause less guilt.  I may get to them, I  may not, but I haven't actually paid for them (yet) so I'm free to scratch them off the list(s) whenever I feel like.

In his recent book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, Alan Jacobs talks about the oppressive influence of people who write books of lists of books you "should" read at some point.  He espouses the much freer idea of reading on Whim.  Yes, I meant to capitalize that.  "Whim" differs from "whim," in that it's somewhat more purposeful.  It's not complete randomness.  But you look at the things you want to read and you pick based on what you want then.  Not what everyone else is reading.  Not because it won an award.  It may have, but that's not why.  You're reading it because it brings you pleasure.  Whether it's a light teen comedy or a deep examination of the tax code, it doesn't matter as long as it interests you.

My problem is I like lists.  I guess that's one reason for the whole librarian thing.  I hear about an interesting book and I need to write it down.  But then how do you go about tackling this huge list of books.  If you read them chronologically you'll never get to that cool new sequel of that book you read last year. If you read only the newest stuff, you'll never go back to that book you meant to read after college.  If you read alphabetically you'll never get to that cool Carl Zimmer science book.

Nah, straight adherence to any list will drive me crazy.  It kills the spontaneity.  No, I need the structure of a list but the freedom to pick on a whim.  So here's what I'm trying now.  I made a spreadsheet [I know, I know, but please don't make fun of me yet] and I put all the books from all those lists on there.  It was a good exercise because some of the books didn't make it onto this list.  When things get unwieldy, it's okay to start separating the wheat from the chaff.  Then I sorted it alphabetically by author.  I highlighted the books I actually own in red.  Those take precedence for the TBR Double Dare.  Since we pick our book club books a few months out, I added those and put the due dates next to them.  Also, since I'm not a format snob, I added a note about how the book is available.  Is it available at the library?  In book or audio?  Or will I get it on the Kindle?  Or will I have to actually buy the physical book in a book store.  (It happens.  The Paulsen book for tonight's book club meeting wasn't at the library in any format and not available as an ebook.)

Now what I do is work the list alphabetically, but not strictly so.  For example, let's say I just finished a Phillip Pullman book.  I look at my list, see there are no Qs on the list, but many Rs.  Rick Riordan, Bertrand Russell and Mary Roach.  Each with more than one title.  So I'm limiting my huge list to just these few authors and titles and picking within them.  I can choose an older Russell or the newest Riordan.  It's up to me. Then I'd look at the Ss.  I have Michael Shermer, John Sandford, Neal Stephenson (always), and some others on there.  The Patty Smith Just Kids jumps out because it's an up coming book club book.  Then  I look at the Ts and so on.  I would obviously make adjustments for book club books or anything I had to read for school or whatever.  And it's not set in stone.  I'm free to do whatever I want.  If I feel like I must read all three Riordan's in a row, well then I'll knock myself out.  If I decide to skip the Ts altogether for now and jump to the Vs, that's fine.  Nobody gets hurt.  It's just a skeleton of a structure to give me a little guidance and to keep books on the list from never getting read.  If I get to the Es and all that's on there is one book there and I've passed it up twice before, that might be a hint that I'm just never going to read it. That's okay.  There are so many books and so little time!

I tend to have one book I'm listening to on audio and one I'm reading in either print or electronic form. I also read various blogs, magazines, etc.  But my point is I might have two books highlighted in different portions of the list, one on audio and one book.  That's just me.  And things are a bit messed up because of the TBR Dare and the need to finish a couple things I stared before the last book I finished.  So I'm in the middle of two collections and an audio book from the library which came in that's not strictly part of the order.  No biggie.  I'll go with the flow and then pick up either where I left off or after that author's name.

I like it because if there's an author you love, it keeps them in the loop without draining you.  If you want to read the last four Stephen King books but you have other things to get to, you know you'll be reading a King every time you get to the Ks for a while.  It's not even every 26th book since I don't have any Is or Ns or Us or whatever right now.

Until the TBR dare is over (and maybe for a while after) I'm looking at books in red first.  Then I'll open the list up a bit more, making sure to fit in the next book club book (if I feel like it, of course).  Does that all make sense? Or am I just crazy?  Okay, now you can make fun of me.

Let me know what you think or how you handle your TBR pile and the other books you want to get to someday.  And especially let me know if you don't do any such thing and read without any plan whatsoever. That would be interesting...