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Reading in Public No. 18 & a TBR advice thread
Infinite options and overwhelming data in the reading life
I’d been planning to answer reader questions today, but in reviewing the responses I noticed one recurring theme. It’s a dilemma so pervasive and debilitating that, rather than attempt to answer each individual conundrum, I decided to tackle the issue here, and invite all of you to weigh in. [I am still accepting questions for future newsletters! Please fill out this form or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org]
Over and over again in responses, I encountered a paralysis of choice in the reading life. Here are some examples:
“I feel overwhelmed by my endless TBR”
“…not sure what I’m truly interested in or would make me happy”
“I’m overwhelmed by starting too many books at once”
“I need to cut down my (digital) TBR - It continues to grow, and I struggle to vet it”
“I’m wanting to read more books and spend less time on Instagram reading about what books to read next”
“I continually struggle to balance new reading and reading my shelves, which are stuffed.”
I feel this all deeply!! And this seems to be to be such a specifically internet-age problem. The problem of wanting to read more books than is reasonable to fit into a life span isn’t brand new. Rather, it’s that we are now aware of more books than ever before, have near immediate access to those books, and (I think this is key) we know more about the books of which we are aware.
Here’s what I mean. Before the explosion of the bookish corner of the internet, I would know only a handful of things about any book I picked up. I would know the premise as based on the cover copy, the genre it was being pitched as, and the length. Perhaps I’d be familiar with the author either as someone I had read before or at least knew about from other reader friends. I may know that one or two friends particularly liked or didn’t like this book, or—if it was an older novel—that it has stood the test of time and is still valued by readers now. If I really wanted to, I might look up reviews and see what the NYT thought of it or if it had been nominated for any literary prizes. Choosing a book to read was a reckless act, and I had no qualms about just picking something up and giving it a try.
Choosing a book to read was a reckless act
But now. Oh, but now we have so. much. DATA. Here is a non-exhaustive list of information I know or can easily access about any book before reading it:
the publisher’s summary and genre categories
why approximately 15 other people think that summary is misleading/gives too much away/isn’t accurate
what genre other readers think the book really is
who online likes the book and what their typical taste is
who online hates the book and what their typical taste is
average star ratings, plus personal star ratings from readers I know and follow
whether the book is up for any prizes
why readers think it shouldn’t be on the list
why readers think it should win the prize
whether the book reads fast, slow, or somewhere in between
what people think the themes of the book are
whether the book is plot-driven or character-driven
whether the ending is ambiguous or tidy
what “tropes” appear in the book
who publishes the book and the general vibe of that publisher and editor
the author’s biography, including if and where they did their MFA and who their writing instructors and mentors are
if it is part of a celebrity book club
which professional readers loved it and which ones hated it
For many readers, all of this information is a great thing. It helps you weed through a veritable bounty of books to select the ones that will work best for you—and that’s awesome! For other readers, this is simply untrue. Maybe you do choose what to read without the bombardment of information I’m describing because bookish social media isn’t your thing.
I also recognize that I am one of the professional readers who provides the information to help readers make these decisions. The fact that I loved a book means some people are more likely to pick it up, and others are now less likely to do so. So I do think this data can be a good thing and I hope the information I provide is helpful…
BUT I suspect that for some of you it is actually all of this information and not necessarily the books themselves that are contributing to your overwhelm. I suspect this because I know it to be true for myself.
I’ve always had an inordinate amount of books I’ve wanted to read. Before it was Instagram recs and prize longlists, it was all of the books my professors cited in class and ubiquitous “best books of all time” lists. When choosing something from ephemeral collection (I won’t call it a TBR because that wasn’t a “thing” then), I’d make a decision based on the limited data points I had, or—for lack of a better framing—let the universe guide me. I’d read something I’d heard about in class and happened to see on a display at the bookstore the next day. Or maybe I’d fit in a particularly short classic when I had a little bit of time to spare.
I didn’t think of the books I wanted to read as a list to get through.
I didn’t get frustrated with myself for choosing the “wrong” book.
And what I absolutely did not do was agonize over all the books I wasn’t reading. And I think this, rather than the daunting length of our to-be-read lists is, what leaves so many of us feeling dissatisfied and overwhelmed. Instead of being happy with the good enough book that I’m reading, I’m wondering if there’s a better book I could be reading. And maybe more than wondering…I know there’s a better book I could be reading because of all the information I have bombarding me.
Anne Helen Petersen wrote about what she termed “the sterile world of infinite choice” recently, and ever since I’ve been wondering how I can scale back my reading options and book data, or at least bring back some of the reckless joy that used to go into starting any book. Without giving up podcasts or Instagram or other literary newsletters, here are a few things I’ve found that help me bring some recklessness back into my reading life.
I request books I want to read from the library as soon as I hear about them. When my holds come in, I don’t research the books to refresh my memory, I just dive right in.
I “shop my shelves.” Rather than letting my unread books overwhelm me, I treat my home library as my own well-curated bookstore. In this way, the limiting factor of what I already own becomes a help rather than a hinderance.
I start reading projects. This may seem like a way to exert more control on my reading life rather than embracing recklessness and, in a way, it is. But I find that adding a specific project into my reading life helps me a) limit options in a good way and b) pick up books I don’t know too much about. For example, I might make it a project to read the backlists of some favorite authors or all of the books on a prize shortlist. I choose them for those specific reasons but avoid learning too much else about them prior to reading.
I pause my content intake when I start to feel slumpy. I’m not going to give up book podcasts and bookstagram completely, but I do tune them out whenever I’m in a bit of a reading slump. This may seem counterintuitive because what better way to bust a slump than with a great recommendation? But, for me, often my slumps are about too much choice rather than not the right book. Tuning out the noise helps me find something I genuinely want to read or at least gives me the freedom to just pick something up and try it.
I avoid reading Goodreads reviews. Hearing too many opinions on a book before I read it rarely makes for a better reading experience.
And now, I’d love to hear from you. What do you do to stave off feelings of overwhelm and comparison, and bring more joy into your reading life? How do you let yourself have fun choosing your next read? How do you avoid thinking about your TBR when you’re in the middle of a book? Let’s help each other feel confident and content with the books we’re reading!
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