From the TBR Pile to the NTBR Pile

For the last six months or so, I’ve been more strategic than I was before not only about deciding which books I want to read but also about reading them. You can find evidence of that strategy in several earlier blog posts – in some of them I present a list for the coming months and in others I described what I actually read. While I was concerned that this might be too rigid (even for me, a person who has a standard plan for loading a dishwasher and is mildly upset when someone puts a bowl in the “wrong” place!), I’ve found it to be more freeing than I expected. I feel good about the structure – in one post, I compared it to my time as a college professor, when I regularly laid out reading plans for me and my students. And, unlike in my syllabi and courses, I didn’t hesitate to add a few other texts to the reading list.

But then I stumbled on an extended quotation from Robert Musil’s character General Stumm in the novel The Man Without Qualities. General Stumm enters a library, planning to establish himself in the world of ideas by reading through the entire book collection.

I had been thinking that if I read a book a day, it would naturally be exhausting, but I would be bound to get to the end sometime and then, even if I had to skip a few, I could claim a certain position in the world of the intellect. But what d’you suppose that librarian said to me, as we walked on and on, without an end in sight, and I asked him how many books they had in this crazy library? Three and a half million, he tells me. We had just got to the seven hundred thousands or so, but I kept on doing these figures in my head; I’ll spare you the details, but I checked it out later at the office, with pencil and paper: it would take me ten thousand years to carry out my plan (Quoted in Jeff Deutsch, In Praise of Good Bookstores, p. 62.

Deutsch follows by imagining his own calculation of what he might read in the time he has left. He doesn’t offer details, but he concludes “No matter how many books I could reasonably read, there would be urgent books left unread” (p. 63).

There’s no need to share details from my own rough calculations; even if I’d been able to read my entire life at the rate I’m reading now in the rather ample time space of retirement, I wouldn’t be able to finish reading all the books that I’ve thought I should read.

I suppose this is yet another one of the realizations of mortality that sink in as one approaches (and passes) a certain age. It’s not that I lie in bed anxiously thinking about those unread books, but I have to admit that I’m unsettled as I pause in front of the bookshelves, thinking that I really should read that one, or this one, or that other one. In the midst of my unsettledness, I remembered a newspaper column that I read earlier this year: Why you should swap your bucket list with a chuck-it list. Or, as I suggest in the title of this post, why I might move some of the books in my TBR pile into the NTBR (Not to be read) pile. But I can’t do this in the abstract – if I start by trying to identify all of the authors (the philosophers, the essayists, the novelists, et al) whose work I won’t be reading I quickly become bogged down. There are so many authors, even if I limit it to the ones that I already know about. But as I stand in front of those bookshelves, I think there’s a more immediate approach. I’ve already admitted in an earlier post that I have more unread books in my library than I could ever read in the time I have left. What’s more, my wife has been insisting for years – or, at least, since I moved many books into our condo when I gave up my office at the university – that we (ok, I) have way too many books for the space that we have. I really should winnow the collection. Of course, on the one hand, she’s right, but, on the other hand, I still think these unread books are books that I really should read. (And, truth be told, in the last five years I’ve purchased used copies of perhaps a dozen or so of the books I gave away when I retired.) So, I’ve begun to think differently. What if I identified the books in my personal library that I’m simply not going to read and then carted those books to the neighborhood used books store?

I’m not fully committed to the plan yet – one has to be very careful when one considers getting rid of books that one urgently needs to read – but I’m gradually warming to the idea. And I have to admit that there’s something freeing about it. It might leave my mind less cluttered. And it would definitely free up some space in the condo. Don’t tell my wife, but I’m thinking I could take advantage of some of that space to buy more books. But not as many as I dispose of. Really.