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

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 and Sylvia Plath. I’ve Storifyed them here so you can read them for yourself. 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!)

About Isabel Costello

Writer (novels: Paris Mon Amour 2017; Scent 2021).Host of the Literary Sofa blog. Co-founder of Resilience for Writers with Voula Tsoflias. Perfume lover and Francophile.


32 thoughts on “Keeping Up with the Literary Joneses (or The Tyranny of the TBR)

  1. I think the main cause of toppling, teetering, ever-growing TBRs is the growing divide between books you want to read and books you feel you ought to read. I find that if I want to read a book, it barely touches any sort of TBR. Perhaps TBRs are like over-full wardrobes – if you haven’t worn something in two years, the accepted wisdom is that it should go. I’d suggest that if an avid reader can see a book sitting around on their bedside table or in their office for more than six months, then he or she hasn’t read it because they don’t want to. And we shouldn’t feel guilty or inferior about that. There’s no such thing as the ‘perfect book’, just the right book for the right person (at the right time). Give that unread book to someone else who you think will love it.

    Posted by Nina Bell | February 21, 2013, 12:58
    • That’s a really excellent point and I suppose it’s why at any moment the book I’m dying to read next can be suppplanted by another one I want to read even more. Inevitably some fall off the bottom. Bit like the clothes you mention, or old friends you never get round to seeing – if you want to enough, you make the effort. I also agree there’s no reason to feel guilty about any of this, but I think some people do!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | February 21, 2013, 14:23
  2. Oh Lordy, the list of books I’ve never read is huge, but stopped worrying about it a long tome ago. If they’re classics, they’re still out there for me to discover when the time is right; if they’re not, then I’ve not missed anything…

    Posted by rowena | February 21, 2013, 12:59
  3. I would say ‘yes’ to all three questions. I have downloaded samples of many classics and, indeed, Hilary Mantel’s award winning books and none of them have been touched. The paperback and hardback pile on the table is threatening to collapse, or be eaten by small children or wild dogs, but I only now read what I know or suspect I’ll like. Gillian is a wonderful source of literary wisdom and I have just bought a collection of short stories by Edith Pearlman on her recommendation.

    Posted by fcmalby | February 21, 2013, 15:11
    • Common problems for the avid reader! It really does help being plugged in and having a sense of what you’re likely to enjoy. Last year the couple of novels I enjoyed the least were huge bestsellers I knew deep down were not my kind of thing – must stop doing that!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | February 22, 2013, 17:49
  4. The Commitments! I love it! I almost tweeted Margaret Attwood to say how much I had enjoyed Wildness Tips when I had a strange feeling and double checked and realised it was Wilderness tips. I’d managed to finished the collection without realising that I had read the title wrong every time I’d picked it up. As for the TBR, I always get into trouble because if I ever read a bad book I take refuge in the Classics for a couple where I know I always get a good read, so I am horribly behind on my modern reading.

    Posted by gabrielablandy | February 21, 2013, 15:12
    • Glad I’m not the only one to have suffered title confusion – and I think repeatedly reading a word as a different word altogether must be quite common. I’ve been doing it since I was a child, almost going on the ‘shape’ of the word and the first and last letters and not taking notice of the middle. I always admire anyone who makes time for the classics.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | February 22, 2013, 17:54
      • I love accidently misreading words. I wish would happen much more – but trying to do it on purpose would defeat the object. It creates new dimensions and ideas, and can by times change a commonplace sentence into something interesting. By the way, I have come accross this phenomenon in the generally sloppy 19th and early century literary publishing standards in the Netherlands, where careless editors and typesetters accidently misread words in the manuscript with interesting outcomes. For example: “goud geel” (golden yellow) became accidently “oud geel” (old yellow) in some 19th centure classic, The mistake improved the text. We will never know how many of these misreadings slipped in, because generally in the 19th century Netherlands hardly any publisher thought it important to take care to keep manuscripts and they were often just lost or discarded.

        Posted by Tom Voute | February 27, 2013, 10:43
  5. Well, I have tweeted about ‘The Night Garden’ instead of ‘The Night Rainbow’ when I was almost asleep until our mutual friend Ben Blackman pointed it out. Feel almost ashamed to admit to having read (and enjoyed!) Ulysses, but have yet to get to Moby Dick. At least I know its famous first line, which is half-way there. Now is probably not the time to admit that my first – overly worthy, as yet unpublished – novel is almost as layered with Nietzsche’s philosophy as Joyce’s is with myths. I even did a meta-novel reference grid just like his. The shame. Clearly it just needed more jokes.

    Posted by isabelrogers | February 21, 2013, 17:00
    • The idea that the first line of Moby Dick is half the battle made me laugh out loud. More like half a millionth. Two years ago I read about 75% of it when prostrated in bed for a week with flu and it’s far more readable than I expected. I think you might also enjoy the seemingly endless cetology bits about whale blubber and the like, some of which are astonishingly poetic. I don’t know why I didn’t finish it but I’d like to. It’s often hailed as the first Great American Novel but I’d be very interested to know how many Americans have actually read it – some of my very educated American friends have not, but hey, I’ve only read about two novels by Dickens so I can talk.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | February 22, 2013, 17:58
  6. I don’t feel guilty about not finishing books anymore, life is too short! I try to read a classic to every two or three modern novels. I loved being told what to read when I was at university, because I was introduced to some extraordinary literature I’d never have picked up. I think we can get too comfortable with our choices and should challenge ourselves. So perhaps it’s good to have a couple of ‘different’ books on your TBR pile?

    Posted by Ruby Speechley | February 21, 2013, 20:42
    • I agree that it’s a good thing to mix things up. When I read something really different to my usual, like The Tiger’s Wife or Lightning Rods, it is quite a jolt but in a good way. Book groups are terrific for introducing people to titles they would never have tried, although I am currently struggling terribly with The Master and Margarita for next week’s meeting. Never a good sign when you find the Gradesavers cheatsheet more readable and more interesting than the book!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | February 22, 2013, 18:02
  7. Isabel, your blog goes to the heart of reading life. I’ve a TBR tower and a Kindle-full of books that scream ‘come on then!’ at me daily. Then there are all those unread classics in my mental TBR list.

    I trot out your first point daily but I don’t really mean it. Points two and three are ever-present and of many literary shames, my most reprehensible is that I’ve yet to read a word of Jane Austen or Henry James; there I’ve admitted it.

    I once read ‘Swann’s Way’ and then listened to an abridged version of the whole of ‘A La Recherche du Temps Perdu’ on tape, then ‘read’ it by skimming and missing out hundreds of pages at a time. I no longer pretend because my nose is long enough as it is. I have, though, read and enjoyed Ulysses. I’m ruthless about disposing of perfectly good clothes that I never get around to wearing, but books are different, aren’t they?

    And, as you say, memory betrays. If challenged to name key characters and plots of certain novels I enjoyed at the time, I know I’d struggle. LIke Ruby, I no longer feel guilty about not finishing books anymore but unlike Rowena, I can’t help feeling guilty about those I haven’t got around to giving a chance.

    Posted by Barry Walsh | February 22, 2013, 10:41
    • Everyone has a few literary hangups or skeletons on the shelves, it seems to me! You’re ahead of me on the Proust. I’m about to box up a whole load of books to donate to the next epic school jumble sale (most I’ve read, some I fancied at the time and now don’t) and for once I won’t be there on the day supposedly selling but actually buying up half the stall.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | February 22, 2013, 18:05
  8. Well, I have a pretty huge TBR pile and promised myself I would buy/borrow no more books until I’ve got through it. Alas, I went shopping yesterday, and bought 3 more. But that really is IT now until I’m done with these.
    I must admit to feeling a bit shoddy if I don’t finish a book. I try very hard and give it 100 pages and if I’m still not taken with it, I’ll pass.

    Posted by Louise | February 22, 2013, 11:28
    • I liked your TBR photo today – very eclectic and featuring some I loved and others I didn’t! Hope you’ll give progress updates. My test for sticking with a book is if I start it whilst in the bath, does it hold my interest for that rare half hour I’m not trying to do something else? I can read quite a few pages in that time. It’s rare that I give up, but if the writing irritates me I will know within about 3 pages and then there’s no chance. Bit like an agent!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | February 22, 2013, 18:08
  9. Ian Rankin’s just described his TBR pile as ‘killer jenga’. I like it.

    Posted by naomifrisby | February 22, 2013, 11:32
  10. Good post, btw. I’ve had a TBR since I was in my late teens. There’s always something new I want to read – I’m fascinated by so much of it – and I read fairly broadly now, I think. That’s mostly thanks to Twitter. Lots of good bloggers on there and I think the publishing houses have a really good handle on how to use Twitter for promotion. My TBR doesn’t worry me so much as I’d like to be able to afford to sit and home and read all day. So if anyone wants to pay me…

    Posted by naomifrisby | February 22, 2013, 11:35
  11. Great post! Answered yes to all three questions 😉 …Once upon a time, all I read was psychological thrillers,by one or two fairly popular authors and that was that….then along came twitter and a whole new reading experience opened up to me!…my tbr pile I blame on that…do I worry? not one bit!

    Posted by YorvikAnnie59 | February 22, 2013, 21:03
    • That’s so fantastic that Twitter has broadened your reading horizons, as I bet it has for many people. I like a good psychological thriller once in a while but I can’t imagine reading them all the time. At the moment every second book I pick up is billed as a ‘literary thriller’. Wonder if that’s the next big thing?

      Posted by Isabel Costello | February 23, 2013, 15:43
  12. Yes, yes, yes! I loved this post Isabel as it struck a chord with me. I was concerned that I wasn’t well read before I started my MLitt course but then I stopped beating myself up as the reason I was at uni was to learn about great literature. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the amount of recommendations from twitter, friends and even your blog but it’s a good feeling, one of excitement. I like to keep a diverse range on my tbr pile so that I can change from a light-hearted read to something darker and alternate the genres. My husband can’t understand my need to keep buying books when there’s already a pile on my bedside table but I like to have a mini library ready and waiting. It’s an addiction really but one that I hope I never overcome, So many books, so little time! Keep writing your fantastic reviews for my next book fix:)

    Posted by helenmackinven | February 23, 2013, 12:43
    • Thanks for easing my conscience Helen. I know of quite a few people who hold me partly responsible for the length of their TBR! We’re all being bombarded with tips and recommendations every day but I think it has a cumulative effect. If you hear from enough different people that a book is good, there’s a strong chance it might be. It’s easier to relax about the whole thing once you accept that the TBR always wins!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | February 23, 2013, 15:47
  13. I confess I answered no to all three questions – can I still come and play? I’ve got plenty of guilt but my stack of unread novels fortunately doesn’t contribute to it. As for the regret for the time I’ve wasted on books I’ve got nothing out of, but thought I ought to read right through to the end (Wolf Hall, Home, Moby Dick), that’s another story …

    Posted by Annecdotist | February 23, 2013, 14:29
  14. Love you misnoming The Corrections! Used to play that soundtrack all the time. Actually, that Franzen book is one that I have just taken down to Oxfam. It has been sitting on my shelf for ages. I did give it a try and really struggled with it, and felt I ought to read it, but now I’ve admitted defeat. I have a teetering TBR pile and things frequently leapfrog and queue jump. Instructions for a Heatwave has just trumped everything including the new Kate Atkinson and so everything else will have to wait. That Lottie Moggach I spy in your pile is also on mine.

    I do admit to having read (and enjoying) Ulysses which was on my degree course but drew the line at Finnegan’s Wake. I have never read Proust’s Rememberance of Things Past but am always referring to it as if I have…must be the madeleine effect. I did make a resolution this year that I would read things already on my shelves rather than buy more, but broke it almost instantly by downloading something on Kindle!

    Posted by alison | February 23, 2013, 17:04
    • I’m quite a fan of The Commitments (even been to see a tribute band with some of the original members!) so at least it wasn’t an insulting mistake. Interesting that you just sent The Corrections on its way; I must admit my enthusiasm for Franzen generally has waned a bit since those days. I didn’t like his next novel as much and he keeps coming out with anti-everything (Twitter, internet, etc) comments. I think the Lottie Moggach will be a huge commercial success, and I’ve read both the Atkinson and the MO’F – let me know what you make of them.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | February 25, 2013, 17:33
  15. Hi Isabel, I’ve definitely felt angst regarding my TBR pile (now a combination of physical and e-stacks). And, even more than this, I often feel hopeless about the number of new books coming out and the inability ever to read enough of them. That said, I’ve gotten less rigid in some of my rules. For example, I now allow myself to stop reading a book that I’ve decided I don’t like whereas I used to feel I had to finish every one. I don’t feel guilty about not having read certain literary giants, but I do feel regret at not finishing a few that have somehow languished even though I liked them. Wolf Hall has been mentioned here already. I love that book, actually – there are some descriptions from it that I wrote in a notebook and it’s quite funny, as well as a bunch of other merits that have already been touted everywhere – but I haven’t finished it. Therefore, it is now back at the top of my TBR!!

    Posted by Kristin | February 25, 2013, 08:59
    • That’s an interesting one, not finishing a book you were enjoying. Although I can’t comment on the Mantel books, I do sometimes find that literary novels lack the onward propulsion that’s an important aspect of more plot-driven novels. I’m reading Jonathan Dee’s new book A Thousand Pardons at the moment and although it’s really well written and there’s a lot to admire about it, I’m really not that bothered about how it ends – only about 20 pages to go so I’ll soon find out!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | February 25, 2013, 17:39
      • Interesting about The Corrections: I love that book and have read it twice (although the followup Freedom wasn’t so great). But my poor husband! I recommended it to him twice and he struggled thru the first 60 pages twice of what wasn’t his kind of book before we both realised he’d been there before!
        Any thoughts about fiction about writers and other forms of creativity? I’ve just put a post about this on my fledgling blog and would love to know what other people think. You can get there through my gravatar or

        Posted by Annecdotist | February 26, 2013, 09:09
  16. TBR is a lovely topic and, oddly, I have never seen it written about anywhere else. In the first place, should we not reflect on the extraordinary and somewhat decadent luxury of having truly excessive quantities of (often very good) books very conveniently available to us. This situation is surely without precedent in human history. I look back with some regret to my childhood when books were still a new experience in life. You didn’t have many and every one was a discovery, made a deep impression and was treasured and re-read. It was, of course, also a time (1950s – early 60’s) when people had generally much less stuff. For many centuries this was the situation for almost everybody who liked to read. I have some TBR, mostly obscure foreign books from jumble sales, charity shops and similar sources which are just about irreplaceable. In general I know that I won’t live long enough to read everything which is worth reading. I find the TBRR (to be re-read) category more important: some of those books I read years ago (some even going back almost 50 years) and a few more recent ones. Some of them are of no great literary merit, but hey are old friends. Others are books which I found so good that I felt a first reading did not do them full justice. Achieving TBRR status is the highest praise I could give a new novel. Some famous established classics fail this test. Most recently, Brideshead Revisited: obviously good quality writing, and I read it to the end in hope that it would eventually become interesting, but it didn’t. Pride and Prejudice (recommended to me by a communist bricklayer and read in the mid-1970s) is definitely TBRR, though.

    Posted by Tom Voute | February 27, 2013, 12:12

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