to be read

DSC00023The books that sit on Lynn Neary’s “shelf of constant reproach” are “the books I know I should have read…but haven’t.” She borrowed this term from Luis Clemons, who chooses which authors to interview for NPR’s Tell Me More, and who refers to the worthy titles that don’t make it as “the shelf of constant reproach.”

Emily, of Evening All Afternoon, would take issue with this view. “…the level of stress and sheepishness about even having a to-be-read stack is a little dismaying to me….should a person feel guilty about the number of books…waiting to be enjoyed? I feel strongly that we shouldn’t….”

Nevertheless I often feel, as piscivorous tweeted yesterday, that “a stack of books is following me about the house.” I have a book shelf full of books I’ve already bought that are waiting To Be Read (see photo). In my head is a list of books I feel I should have already read. Finally, I have books I want to reread. And new books are being published all the time.

Moonrat came up with a list of 100 books that she wanted/needed to read. She labeled it her: Project Fill-in-the-Gaps. Once the book is read, the ink changes from black to red. [list toward the bottom of her sidebar]

How to make sense of all these books? How do I decide what to read next? Infinite Jest had been on my to-be-read shelf for 13 years, but Infinite Summer persuaded me to dust it off and open it up. Recently I began adding how I chose the book I was reading to my Reading List page. I thought this might make me give the selection a little more thought. But other than my monthly writing group selections and review deadlines, it seems to be similar to the way I choose what to write about–at that moment it’s just what gathers enough weight to cause me to reach for it.

And you?

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25 thoughts on “to be read

  1. That is quite an impressive stack. I’ve gotten ruthless about giving away or selling books I’m never going to read, but there are still some that linger. Gift books are often the most problematic, although I enjoy getting that type of gift. I also read by mood.

    I do try to line up my monthly book review novel in advance, especially if I need an ARC and an author interview. You reminded to email December’s author.


  2. Hi Cindy,

    Did you see this essay? I followed your link to “Moonrat” and this was in one of the earlier entries:

    I couldn’t stop reading it, even though I should have been reading something else!

    As for how to decide what to read next, it’s part feeling, and part visiting my wishlist, which I believe now stretches for 7 pages. It’s my virtual to-be-read stack. I always need to have book that I read without a pencil. Otherwise I forget why I like to read in the first place!


  3. Good morning, Cynthia.

    What a fantastic photograph! And scary. It’s not too amazing to me that your TBR stack is so high, but it is scary to imagine it tumbling down.

    I had to laugh at the “shelf of constant reproach.” That’s a great name for it. Maybe we should all have one of those, either a book case labeled that or at least a shelf in a bookcase. Of course choosing what to read next is always an interesting proposition. So many books come in, and there is always guilt at how many simply don’t make it (at least not for a long time) onto the TBR pile.

    Personally, I am learning to let the guilt go. (My cats, who never, ever feel guilty about anything, are great teachers.) We do what we can do. And as far as choosing books, I find that lately I am simply shelving all books that I want to keep. No longer do I keep piles of separate books such as those for review, those I bought, etc. I do have a database that keeps that information straight for me, but I have come to appreciate the shelves’ ability to hold everything. So when I search out a new read I simply go there, run my eye over each shelf in turn, and pick the first book that appeals to me at that time. Easy!


  4. What a TBR monster you have there, Cynthia!

    I’m not sure if my TBR pile is any smaller. My TBR pile is more dispersed. It lies in piles on the coffee table. Along various bookshelves. Along side my bed, where a woman should be entering. A smaller pile follows me around the house, the books I’m reading or want to start reading. I dip in a toe by reading the introductions and prefaces. This pile of books, perhaps 10 or so, has taken to my bed or follows me to the coffee table. Then there is the virtual pile on my Amazon Wish List that runs 20 pages and nearly 500 items (not all books, but mostly books). I’m reading more verse now and that probably has something to do with the number of books I’m reading, since I don’t like to just drill through poetry, but read many authors at once, sometimes over months.

    Since Infinite Summer I’ve relied on the advice of the many fellow readers, like Cynthia here, Lisa Kenney, Donald Taylor and Walt Pascoe. I’ve also quit reading books I didn’t find interesting enough (Pynchon bores me, sorry). I figure I can always come back. Now, the trouble with having so many great reading friends is they will suggest more books, books that you don’t have. I finally picked up Pierre Bayard’s very clever and funny “How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read”. This is one book that is indispensable for all of us, for it also teaches us how to speak about books we’ve read, to understand their significance:

    “Our relation to books is a shadowy space haunted by the ghosts of memory, and the real value of books lies in their ability to conjure these specters.”

    Also, he will get you reading some over very interesting books (e.g, Musil’s “The Man Without Qualities”). We’re always creatively not reading, even when we read:

    “Even in the case of the most passionate lifelong readers, the act of picking up and opening a book masks the countergesture that occurs at the same time: the involuntary act of not picking up and not opening all the other books in the universe.”


  5. That’s a great photo — and it makes me feel so much better about my own TBR stack. Actually, I’m tempted to stack them up into one pile since they’re actually scattered about the house in smaller stacks.


  6. Wow, I’m honored to be mentioned in such distinguished company! 🙂 As much as I think we shouldn’t feel guilty, I definitely understand the moments of being overwhelmed by all the reading possibilities. That’s a great idea about adding the a “why now?” field to the list of read books.

    This year my “why now?” choices have centered on completing reading challenges. Next year I’m doing fewer of those – not because I didn’t like them but because I choose a new reading “project” every year. I love the process of lingering over my to-be-read shelf, lovingly taking one volume out and then another. On my Sound of Music-style list, that activity would definitely be one of my Favorite Things.


  7. Sarah, there are just so many books out there that we have to be ruthless about giving away the ones we’re not going to read. In fact, I went through my TBR pile this summer searching for books I no longer had an interest in reading and those books in that picture are all books I still want to find time to read!

    BTW, I agree that mood is a big factor in which book I reach for next.


  8. Wow, what a huge stack of TBR books! Mine is also large, but I don’t know if it is that big. Then again, I haven’t seen mine all stacked in one giant tower. 🙂

    My book stacks are spread out similar to piscivorous. I always keep a book in my purse, in the car, in both bathrooms, and on my bedside table. I prefer short story collections and poetry, because I can read something “complete” in short sittings. My reading periods are fragmented.

    Looks like we are reading similar books! I am enjoying Gate at the Stairs. Tassie is odd and hilarious. I read Brief History of Time a little while ago – beautiful poetry book.


  9. Ouch. I have a pile like this, although I have to admit yours is taller! My new plan is to try audiobooks. Books seem to fly by faster when I have someone reading them to me. And it makes me feel like a little kid again, with mom reading to me and acting out all the parts. Cheers!


  10. Annie, I did see that essay. I actually found it on Friday (someone tweeted about it), and I immediately added a link to it here on the Updates Page. I printed it out, then read it again with a pen. I was especially mesmerized by Chee’s description of Annie Dillard’s rigorous teaching methods. I got so much out of it I may have to do a post about it too. I would have loved to have been in that class.

    Plus of course I loved her candy wrappers piling up!

    A virtual TBR list is brilliant. Instead of buying I should just add it to a wishlist. Then if I lose interest before I read it, I just have to click delete.

    BTW, if I’m not reading with a pen or a pencil, the book is no good : )


  11. You certainly don’t have a cat… because this beautiful Tour de babel will already be all over your place.

    I really enjoyed this post. I do also have a gilty feeling with all the books I wish to read but didn’t have the time… But I keep reading the books that come to me like a friend for a moment in my life. Sometimes it is for the work or research, sometimes it is by curiosity.

    Always for pleasure!

    Thank you for this Alexandria post!


  12. Lauren, actually there’s very little danger of the books tumbling down. They are all resting on this very cool book shelf from Design Within Reach that takes up hardly any space. Perfect for a corner.

    I love what you said about coming “to appreciate the shelves’ ability to hold everything.” I’m thinking let the shelves hold the guilt too.

    I also like that in the end you pick the first book that appeals to you at that moment, allowing your choice of what to read next be no more complicated than that.

    Nice to hear from you again!


  13. Piscivorous, it’s fun to see you here. It does sound like your stack would be as high as mine if all the short stacks (sounds like pancakes) were piled one on top of the other. I do love seeing books in piles around the house. There’s something so warm and solid about that. But I’m afraid it would make me crazy, as if the books I wanted to read were taking over the world. So I keep them in one place where I can be the boss of them!

    I like the way you read poetry, lingering over more than one poet at a time. Nice.

    I have added Bayard’s book to my brand new virtual wishlist. But your last quote is a killer. Nevertheless, for some reason I want to engrave it as a plaque on my TBR shelf!


  14. Kim-Thanks for your comment. It would be fun to know what books are in both our stacks!

    Dory-This photo was made possible only because of my new camera that takes panoramic shots! And as I said to Piscivorous, it makes me feel much more in control of the situation to have all the books I want to read in one spot.

    Emily-Overwhelmed is a much better word than guilty and more accurate from my standpoint. I am always impressed with your wide-ranging selection of books prompted at least in part by your reading challenges. It will be interesting to see what you choose with fewer of those.

    I also wanted to recommend Mark Bastable’s very funny essay in Bibliobuffet on reading choices, “Is This the Line for Faulkner’s latest?” Here’s the link:


  15. Piscivorous, I also meant to add that Infinite Jest used to sit at the very bottom of this stack, down there where Woman is now, which gives me hope that I will eventually get to all of them.


  16. Cynthia,

    (Like that shelf! I also see you also have The Life of Pi on your TBR pile!) I enjoyed Bastable’s essay; reminds me of the quip, “Shakespeare? Pah! Nothing but clichés!” I was lucky that Infinite Jest was only on my TBR pile briefly, as I had picked it up only a few months before Infinite Summer took off.


  17. Alright Matt! That’s it! You’re shut off ! You put Vasko Popa and Peter Bayard on my teetering pile in one day. :))

    “Our relation to books is a shadowy space haunted by the ghosts of memory, and the real value of books lies in their ability to conjure these specters.”

    Books were a life line when I was a little kid. The environment I grew up in was…well…Dickensian, I guess. I’ll spare you the gruesome details. But buried in that experience somewhere is a moment when books became talismans for me. More than just bearers of stories and information, they were magical charms w/ the power to transport me to a better place. My mom, who was 15 yrs. old when I was born, was a bright girl trapped by circumstance and bad choices. But she was obsessed w/ having me read for some reason. I think I had a TBR pile of ragged used books scavenged from church rummage sales and the town dump practically before I could even walk.And she would let me skip the hideous bus ride home from school every day so I could walk 2 miles to the public library and commune w/ books.I’d save a little bit of my lunch in a mauled and re-used brown paper bag and stay there well past “normal people’s” dinner hour. She would eventually come around to pick me up in her wheezing old rust-bucket, coughing the acrid blue smoke of burnt oil.I didn’t realize until much later that she was also buying me a little peace, and a chance to avoid at least a portion of the horrendous things that were going on at home. And but so books have been my constant companions ever since. My ticket out of the rat-hole, and my introduction to the series of virtual mentors who would stand in for the father I never met. Some are stacked in neat, worshipful rows the way Catholics stack candles. Others are scattered about in manically skewed piles awaiting their turn. Quietly tolerating having been overlooked yet again in favor of some new interloper. Or even coiled sneakily on the edge of a table, ready to leap into my hands in a fit of Jungian synchronicity at precisely the right moment. And, like Matt said, some almost literally following me around the house!


  18. Teresa-I used to keep books in all those different places too, until it seemed like it was taking me forever to finish anything. I”ll look forward to reading about these books on your blog too. So nice to be reading the same ones at about the same time!

    Kimberly-Yes, ouch. The old pile has gotten a little out of hand. I love audio books as well, and Lauren Roberts just wrote a wonderful essay on “The Voice of a Book.

    Mireille-I do love the “friend” aspect of books, curling up with one on the sofa, returning to the voice of an author we know or a character we’ve read before. Thanks for your comment!


  19. Walt-if I hadn’t seen your paintings, I’d say you’d chosen the wrong profession. And but so you wield your words as deftly as the brush, painting a picture here of the boy who loved books. How wonderful of your young mother to give you books and the time and space to read them.

    I love how you bring your TBR piles to life in the last part of your comment:

    Quietly tolerating having been overlooked yet again in favor of some new interloper. Or even coiled sneakily on the edge of a table, ready to leap into my hands…

    Thanks for taking the time to share this piece of your life.


  20. Well, Tricia, 41. That takes you to Mary Gordon’s Good Boys and Dead Girls on my stack, right at the bottom of the light switch.

    Some of the books in this stack have been here since 199o. Nicholson Baker’s Room Temperature, for example.

    In order to make room for new books, every once in a while, I’ll go through and give away the books I’ve lost interest in for one reason or another before I could read them. So many books and so little time…


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