Columns > Published on July 3rd, 2014

Culling Your To-Be-Read List

Because I make poor financial decisions—such as purchasing inflatable pickles and American flag fanny packs—I found myself needing to downsize apartments in a bid to get my spending under control. Seriously, my Amazon purchase history is downright shameful, and now I'm paying the price.

Moving into a smaller apartment is an art. Scale diagrams were drawn. Creative solutions to the problem of having one's toilet a few feet away from one's oven were addressed. After some serious art, it turned out that I could not fit as many obsessions into a studio apartment as I did into a 2-bedroom. I know, shocking. The intersection of science and art always is.

Lots of stuff had to go.

Possessions can get out of hand. Things you don't need, like golf clubs. Things you should probably get rid of but can't, like love notes. And if you're just a little like me, your to-read list gets to be like that two-bedroom apartment, jammed with stuff that really should go.

Just the way a reduction in possessions can help (a person can't move into a smaller apartment and continue to purchase shirts depicting eagles riding motorcycles), a reduction in your to-read list can help too. The slimming down will get you familiar with your love of books again. It'll make your list something useful again.

Let's machete back the overgrowth, clear out the cobwebs, and sure, we might throw a few babies out with the bath water, but the good news is you've got a Double-Duggar-Bus number of babies on the list, so toss away!

A TBR list is like a map to the world of books, right? If so, the question you have to ask yourself is whether you're drawing a map of a city you'll ever visit.

Sweet Emotion

The hardest part of slicing and dicing your To Be Read (TBR) list is getting over the idea that you've built something of value here.

Let's be honest. A TBR list is like a map to the world of books, right? If so, the question you have to ask yourself is whether you're drawing a map of a city you'll ever visit.

As much as I would like to believe I'll one day take that trip to Classic Town and visit all my friends—the Brontës, Señor Cervantes—that's just not happening.

The TBR list has value, don't get me wrong. But only as a to-do list.

Sometimes making a list of things can take the place of actually doing those things. I once made a laminated list of cleaning tasks, figured I'd tackle two a day and after a month I'd clean everything. I made the list, made checkboxes. Not once did I follow it. The list itself became the job, which was the exact opposite of what I was shooting for.

So here's what you need to remember and accept: Reading has value. The books you've read have value. The list of books you genuinely want to read has value too, but the TBR list that includes every title you've ever thought of reading? It could use a trim.

Same Old Song And Dance

This step is simple. Take the oldest 10% of your list and cut it, straight up. With my list, most of that 10% ended up being stuff that was about five years old. It'd been on the TBR list for five years, unread.

Guy Kawasaki, author of APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur and others, has a theory that any email older than 21 days can just be deleted, a theory he developed after he lost his inbox and no one complained.

If you put a book on your TBR list five years ago and never got to it, how badly do you really want to read it?

A five-year plan is an ambitious thing. And when it doesn't pan out, it's time to change.

A 10% cut from my TBR list of 988 resulted in a newer, shinier list of...nobody link my math teachers to this...somewhere in the neighborhood of 802.6 titles.

By the way, the advice here for reading lists is solid, the math is not.

Toys In The Attic

Sometimes the TBR list is bulky because you've got a book-buying problem. We've all been there. I wouldn't normally be interested in The Sun Also Rises...but this copy is pristine and 99-cents!

Before long you've got a shelf full of stuff you'll never read.

Slim down your collection of physical books and cut your TBR list. Get a cardboard box and fill it with the books you're least likely to read in the next month. Be honest. If I picked up a book and said "You MUST read this next" would it fill you with happiness or would you spend the next month reading something you hate, shooting longing looks over to the bookshelf?

Tape that box up, then tape a blank sheet of notebook paper to the top. If, over the course of the next month, you remember a title that's in there and want to read it, write it down on the notebook paper. After a month, any titles on the notebook paper can be saved, the rest have to go.

Emptying the box and saving the books you wrote down is a good job for another person, by the way. Which brings us to...


One of the toughest things I ever trashed was a bunch of ex-girlfriend pictures.

If I picked up a book and said "You MUST read this next" would it fill you with happiness or would you spend the next month reading something you hate, shooting longing looks over to the bookshelf?

The problem, of course, was that the ex-girlfriend pictures were intermingled with all the other pictures from the last couple years. There was too much feeling attached to those pictures. I could never toss them. But if they just disappeared I'd never know which ones were missing.

To get it done I enlisted the help of someone who knew me, and someone I knew would be brutal, ruthless, and could call me me out on my nonsense. I enlisted my brother.

Have a trusted friend look through your TBR list, and tell that friend to slash out 15-20%, whether that number be 10 books or 11 books or even 1000 books. Chances are you won't notice which ones are missing, which means it was time for them to go.

Using this method, I made a reduction of...96.8 titles, leaving me with a poorly estimated 747 titles.

Same Old Song And Dance

Noah saved two of every animal in the Great Flood. A coward would have saved three or four, you know, for spares. Hell, when I go camping I bring three flashlights. A regular one, a backup, and a backup to the backup. Panic sets in when I lose the original and have only the backup and backup's backup to keep the world illuminated.

Presumably, two of each animal was enough to repopulate the planet once the flood was over and things were cool again. I'm not totally sure whether Noah managed to call for a moratorium on intercourse while the boat was afloat, but for his sake I hope so. Point being, two was the minimum number he needed for things to move forward, and the minimum was enough.

On your TBR list, feel free to condense by taking off multiple titles by the same author. If the book is good, it'll carry you into the next book. You don't need to add every book by an author. Just the next one.

Using this method, I reduced my list just a bit, down to 700.2 titles, approximately.

I Don't Want To Miss A Thing

I had an English teacher who once told me to copy edit paragraphs by doing them out of order. Edit paragraph seven, then paragraph two, then paragraph one. Honesty time: he most likely never told me to edit paragraph seven because I can't imagine I put in seven paragraphs of effort, but the idea is still sound.

If you've kept a TBR list for a long time, you're probably used to looking through it from newest to oldest or from oldest to newest.

Taking a look at your list out of order will break up the rhythm. It will keep you from bobbing your head from title to title. If you've looked through your list too much, you expect to see Willful Creatures right after My Korean Deli, so rather than thinking about each title on its own, each one becomes another beat from the song in your head.

Look through your list starting at the middle. And cut. Cut titles that don't ring a bell whatsoever. Cut titles from authors you've since read and didn't enjoy. Cut titles that you added at a time when you had an interest in typography and fonts that faded pretty quickly once you made the sweeping decision that there are about three good fonts and that's the end of it.

This method helped me cut a good 13%. Which, based on string theory, brings me down too about 618.333 titles.

Livin' On The Edge

Chuck Palahniuk, your friend and mine, wrote an article about committing suicide every couple of years.

Okay, not actually killing yourself, but preparing your life as though you might. Getting everything together, condensing what matters and eliminating what doesn't. Why?

Any man will tell you that it's not the big disasters that finish you. No, given an invasion by hostile space aliens or an attack of flesh-eating zombies, most guys will grab their coats and hats and run out to join the fray. Even a run-of-the-mill earthquake or forest fire constitutes a nice change of pace. Instead, what grinds us down are the parking tickets. The spoiled food in the back of the fridge. The dirty clothes at the bottom of the hamper that haven't seen daylight since 1995. Once you allow a critical mass of these petty annoyances to collect, you're sunk.

As you take a last look through your TBR list, think about it like this:

If I had a year left to live, which books would I want to read? Which books would I want to have in my head before I die? Which books make good use of the time I have left?

It's a dark way to think of it, but honestly, it's effective. And it might just get your list down to a nice, manageable, very useful tool.

What It Takes

Now that you've got this tidy list, what's to keep it from spiraling out of control again? How can you make sure you don't have to make big cuts year after year?

Librarian Meagan Day shares this hint:

I go through my To-Read list in pieces. I'll look at the next 50 books on the list and say 'Do I really want to read this?'

Similar to Hoarders cleaner Matt Paxton's advice:

Don't go to bed unless the sink is empty and each night clean a room for 10 minutes.

Break the big job into small jobs, and keep up with your TBR list. I know, it's the hardest thing to do. We, as a people, are not good at regular, easy maintenance. However, if you make your TBR list something useful, something alive, something you refer to all the time because it helps you keep up with what kind of book you need next, you'll be more likely to keep it tight.

So far, everything is good in the studio apartment. In fact, maybe even a little better. Because it's so small, I narrowly avoided relatives staying at my place last week.

My smaller TBR list is an improvement too. Because it's smaller, it's useful. It actually reminds me of things I want to read right now. Instead of acting as this monument to all the books I'll never get to, it's become something that I can move towards.

More than anything, it's something I can skim through quickly, which means I spend less time working on a list and more time reading.

And ordering junk from Amazon.

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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