Most readers have a TBR pile, even if they don’t know what a TBR pile is. In book lingo, a ”TBR Pile” is your to-be-read pile. It’s all those books that you’ve stacked up with the honest intention of reading… and inevitably never got round to.
It’s that copy of Infinite Jest that you just had to buy but never ended up opening. It’s that copy of The Silmarillion that you’ve tried to read five or six times, or that book that everybody was raving about for months that still sits with its uncracked spine, mocking you.
We’ve all got TBR piles, and if you’re anything like us, they just keep growing and growing. There’s a phrase found on tote bags and art prints across Etsy that says, “buying books and reading books are two different hobbies”, and we’ve never identified with a tote bag more. In fact, there’s a Japanese word, Tsundoku, to describe the act of buying books and never reading them.
It takes mere minutes to order or buy a new book but hours to read them, so it’s no wonder that most of us have bookshelves full of unread books. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. Umberto Eco argued that unread books are more valuable than read ones, describing them as the “unlibrary” and said they’re an indicator of a curious mind.
But if you’re looking for ways to whittle down your TBR pile, we’ve got some tried and tested steps that’ll help you organise it and start reducing the pile (so that you can immediately start building it back up again)!
Step 1: Take Stock of Your Stack
Unless you’re incredibly organised and have your very own Dewey Decimal System to track the read and unread books in your collection, you’ll need to take inventory to work out which books you’ve still got to read.
Fair warning: This process won’t be quick. In the time it takes, you might have been able to read one of the shorter books on your pile. But it’s well worth the time and effort. You’ll find books that you’d forgotten about and ones that you can’t remember why you didn’t read at the time.
Taking inventory gives you not only a complete overview of your TBR pile but also time to reflect on what truly belongs at the top.
Step 2: Decide What Belongs on the Pile
We’ve all been there when somebody visits your house or sees your office and asks, “How many of these books have you actually read?” Usually, you’ll give a vague answer like “most of them”, but more often than not, it’s less than half.
That’s not a bad thing and can actually indicate an inquisitive mind. Besides, over time you’ll get through the unread books on the shelf (especially if you’re reading this post). But it’s likely you also own books that you’ll probably never read, and putting them in your TBR pile is just going to demotivate you.
If you’ve got a hardback copy of The Divine Comedy sitting on your pile, it’ll be pretty challenging to work up the courage to get through it. So you need to be picky and decide what belongs on the pile and what doesn’t. Not all books belong as a TBR; some are best saved for a long holiday or retirement.
Step 3: Make More TBR Piles
This might sound counterintuitive but bear with us. As we just mentioned, some books don’t belong on your TBR pile, but you’ll still want to read eventually, so make a pile for the books you’re saving for a holiday or retirement.
Now that they’re out of the way, you’re left with the books that you want to read soon. The problem is that the pile could be massive, and so it’s a good idea to make smaller piles. Not only does it help to get the stack organised, but it’ll feel a lot less overwhelming when you’ve got a few smaller stacks rather than one leaning tower of literature.
You can organise the piles however you like, maybe by the kind of mood you need to be in to read them. Whichever way you choose to manage them, you need to make sure that the piles are approachable and ready to go when you’ve got some time to read.
Step 4: Organise the Piles by Date
Unsurprisingly, a book that sits on a shelf for years unread is probably fated to stay that way. An excellent way to make sure that you get through all of your TBRs is to put the books that you’ve had the longest at the top.
By doing this, you’ll make sure that you put your enthusiasm into the first book and don’t skip it further down the pile. The newer books have been bought for a reason, and you’re probably eager to get to them, so you can motivate yourself through some of the tougher books by saving them until later.
Step 5: Make Your TBR Pile Impossible to Ignore
If you’ve gone to the effort of organising your TBR, the worst thing you can do is put them all back on the shelf or hide them away somewhere. Keep your top-3 or top-5 TBR pile books in plain sight as a constant reminder to get through it.
Keep them next to your bed or somewhere in your house that you regularly go past so that when you’ve got a spare ten minutes, and you’re not sure what to do, you can pick up the first book and start working through the pile.
Step 6: Find Opportunities to Read
This one is pretty obvious, but if you want to get through your TBR pile, you’re going to need to dedicate some time to, you know, reading.
Reading is one of life’s greatest pleasures, but sometimes it can be challenging to build up the motivation to open a book. After a long day at work, it’s easy to opt for a night in front of the TV instead of focusing on a brilliant novel.
Fortunately, there are some easy ways to get into the habit of reading and make it part of your daily routine. One of the best ways is not to leave your house without a book; then you can read it on the bus or train or when you stop for a coffee. Another way is to get into the habit of listening to audiobooks; that way, you can get on with other activities like going to the gym or cleaning the house and enjoy a fantastic book at the same time. (And yes, listening to the book counts as reading it!)
Step 7: Make the Pile a Priority
There are tonnes of books available, and it’s so easy to get distracted by a new book and forget about the ones on your pile. With personalised adverts, book clubs and recommendations from friends, it can be pretty difficult to escape the lure of a new book, but it’s time to be fussy about any new books that you buy.
We’d never recommend that you stop buying books, but make sure that whatever books you buy aren’t just going to end up on a shelf or distract from your TBR pile.
If you get a new book and it takes the top spot, make sure that you read it so that you can continue working your way through the rest of the pile. Check reviews and really think about whether or not you want the book or if you’re just participating in Tsundoku. And try to alternate between a new book and a TBR book so you don’t feel that you’re missing out, but you’re still getting through the older novels on the pile.
Step 8: Create a Space Just for Reading
This one might be a bit difficult if you haven’t got a lot of space, but it’s a great way to focus on getting through your TBR pile. If you can, create a space in your home that is purely for reading, then you can properly start to make a dent in the pile.
Make the space a book-only area (okay, maybe tea should also be allowed), where all you do is read without the distractions of your phone, the internet or work. It’ll help you focus on the book, but it’s also good for your physical and mental health.
Step 9: Don’t Be Afraid Not to Finish a Book
We’ve all been there, struggling through the pages and disliking all the character tropes in every chapter, but determined that you will finish the book.
While it’s admirable to plough on and try to finish a book, if the title isn’t working for you, don’t be afraid to DNF (did not finish). Sludging your way through a novel is one of the quickest ways to kill enthusiasm for reading and could easily slow down your progress through the TBR pile.
Not every book that you buy will be your cup of tea, but that’s nothing to worry about; there’s plenty of others out there. Books are there for pleasure, and if you’re not enjoying them, what’s the point?
In the words of Atwood T Townsend: “Never force yourself to read a book that you do not enjoy. There are so many good books in the world that it is foolish to waste time on one that does not give you pleasure.”
You can always come back to it later and give it another go. There’s a real joy in being able to let a book go and move onto the next one without feeling guilty. Plus, you wouldn’t be lying if you said you’d read the book, sort of.
Step 10: Rinse and Repeat
By the time you come to the end of your TBR pile, it’s more than likely that you’ll have got just as many new books that you want to read. Fortunately, you’ll already be an expert at organising and getting through your pile; just rinse and repeat the steps we’ve outlined.
If you’re really into making piles by this point, you can make a pile of books you’ve read that’ll show your progress. If you’re looking to clear some space on your shelves for your next book-buying spree, you can make a ‘read pile’ of books you don’t want to keep and donate them to a local charity or sell them for a bit of money towards new books.
And if you’re looking to add a new book to the top of your TBR pile, check out the latest releases from Inspired Quill.