Death by TBR

books on bookshelves
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When it comes time to write my obituary, I am certain that it will read: Janet passed away after being crushed to death by the pile of books beside her bed that she was planning to read. In other words, death by To Be Read (TBR) pile.

Why do I have such a potentially fatal TBR pile? Because it is my nightmare to be stranded somewhere, at some time, without anything to read. At the least I want a bedside book, a purse book, a bathroom book, and a car book. And I read so voraciously and so quickly that the books are now stacked on shelves to the ceiling in my study, bookshelves and dressers throughout the house, and even in closets, where most sensible people put shoes.

I would rather read a ketchup label than do without entirely. (Food labels are far more interesting than they used to be, now that they include nutrition information as well.)

But now that I have an e-reader, my TBR pile is actually a TBR list, and less likely to be a squashing hazard. But it’s just an electronic version of the same old story. There are over 700 books (and a few magazines) stored on it, but I still feel panicky at the thought of nothing to read. I can – and do – reread my favorites (some of the best-loved once a year), but I still feel the need, the craving, to buy more.

Back when I read dead-tree editions, I haunted used bookstores where I could swap my discards for other cheap paperbacks. Back in the day, there were even secondhand bookshops that paid you actual money for your rejects. They weren’t idiots. They knew that I and my fellow bibliophiles would turn right around and spend that money on the spot. It was so much more personally satisfying than getting store credit, though the effect was virtually identical.

But with e-readers, used editions are no longer necessary, or even possible. Instead I now haunt the discount book purveyors, several of which send me every day a list of titles that range from free to $3.99. I’ve encountered some real clunkers that sounded good from the blurb (well, to tell the truth, that used to happen with paper books as well). But several times a week I see a book I haven’t read by a favorite author or a book I read decades ago that I get because I want to see if it still holds up.

At the moment, I try to keep a steady diet of books going – two fiction and two nonfiction. Of course I have to choose carefully. It wouldn’t do to be reading two mysteries at the same time, or two travel books. No, I have to make sure that each is of a different genre or topic. Then I rotate them, reading a few chapters of each in turn until I fall asleep at last, my e-reader slipping from my grasp.

At the moment, my four books are Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson and Critical Mass by Sara Paretsky; and In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick and The Egg and I by Betty McDonald. (That last is one of those read-long-ago books that seems likely to make me squirm now because of the racist attitude toward “dirty Indians.” I can’t imagine how that escaped me at the time. I guess it was before I was “woke.”)

Next in line, unless their places are usurped by other compelling titles, are Again, Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison, and Van Gogh: The Life, by Steven Naifeh. And there are backups to the backups, I assure you.

There’s a word for people like me: In Japanese it’s tsundoku, or “book hoarder,” though I dislike the implication that we merely want to have books, not to read them. Open Culture understands my plight and recommends that the Japanese hurry up and invent a word like e-tsundoku. When I was growing up, the word was “bookworm,” which has the unwelcome denotation of being something that destroys books. (Not that I haven’t read the covers off some of my favorites.)

Will I ever get rid of my TBR pile? Not in this life. I may be less likely to die of the electronic version, but there will always be a raft of books ready to take me away from this life into another.




2 thoughts on “Death by TBR

  1. When I get low on new books on my e-reader, I immediately go and buy about 10 new ones, just in case I might run out or I don’t have access to the internet. I am comfortable with about 10 because I know I will read about two a day. They are all science fiction and fantasy. However, those are for backup. I read studies related to my field for as long as I can. When I get tired of reading studies, which are really intensive, I switch to my backup, the e-reader. I can contentedly sit in my chair, with my cat on my lap and read for hours. I take it with me everywhere, so that I don’t have to spend a minute staring into space. I originally started reading at doctor’s offices to help with anxiety. It worked so well, I don’t get anxious there anymore, just bored.


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