The TBR pile
Like many people who enjoy reading I have a TBR (to be read) pile. In my case it’s a large pile, even though when I moved home in December 2010 I got rid of an awful lot of excess stuff. I have several hundred books I haven’t yet read (though in fairness that’s counting some of my wife’s books that I’m unlikely to read, such as her Spanish literary fiction or scholastic titles about the Italian renaissance).
I also have trade paperback comics I haven’t read, DVDs I haven’t watched, RPGs and boardgames I haven’t played and computer games purchased through my Steam account that I haven’t played. The vast majority of them cost money (some are gifts or review copies), and they pretty much all take up space (though I’ll return to the space issue since increasingly they’re in electronic form).
For various reasons I’m not particularly happy about this. TBR piles aren’t entirely bad because a home library offers a world of potential books to explore, meaning whatever my mood I likely have something to suit, but there’s also an oppressive element in seeing past interests abandoned and the knowledge that some of it never will be read.
When I started blogging I started buying more books. It’s natural. Blogging is about sharing enthusiasms. Blogging isn’t broadcasting, it’s conversation and in comments on your own blog and reviews on other people’s you inevitably discovers new books that are genuinely exciting. Couple that with online shopping and soon books can be coming in faster than you’re reading them.
That’s either my TBR pile, or possibly the library at Trinity College in Dublin. Hard to say.
When I first moved in with my wife we lived in a one room studio. I had my own place, but I soon got rid of it, so everything I had was in that room along with her stuff. It was cramped, I don’t want to romanticise it, but it was possible. We now have vastly more space (our place isn’t huge, but it’s comfortably big enough for two) and of course more stuff. Some of that stuff genuinely adds to life, things like the bread maker and ice cream maker which let us do things we actually couldn’t before. The shelves of unread books though? Those don’t add so much.
As a result I’ve recently instituted some rules on how I buy books. In no particular order, here they are:
1. If I’ve not read anything by an author I don’t buy more than one book by that author as my first purchase.
This avoids my Joseph Rathbone experience where I thought his work sounded great, bought three of his novels, read the first and hated it and so ended up giving them all away (two unread).
2. If I have an unread book by an author, I don’t buy another book by that author.
This is sometimes tricky. I have an unread Echenoz, and keep reading reviews of other Echenoz novels which sound tremendous. It makes no sense though to buy them if I haven’t read the one I have. That kind of thinking led to my having everything Richard Yates has written (hardly a tragedy, but not really necessary given I read about one of his a year typically). It lead to my owning all Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels of which I’ve read the first five or so and then ground to a halt. Tastes change, and while at the time I bought them I was reading a Rankin a month it turns out that wasn’t a good predictor of how I’d carry on reading.
3. I can’t buy more books in a month than I’ve read or permanently removed from the house.
This isn’t working well for me. Not because I haven’t stuck to it, I largely have. It’s not working because if I read four books and buy four books then I now have four more books on the shelves, and the same number of unread books as I started the month with. I may need to institute a firmer one in-one physically out policy or change the ratio (one in for each two read say).
So, three rules but at least three fairly simple ones. Of course the much simpler one would be cold turkey. Just stop buying books for some (probably arbitrary) period. Absolute bars tend not to work well for me, but I can see the temptation.
Oddly enough with other media it’s been easier. I barely buy computer games now as I recognise that I have some seriously good ones yet unplayed. I no longer buy DVDs unless I plan to watch them pretty much as soon as they arrive (though even with that Star Trek sat around for nearly a year unwatched and Fish Tank still remains to be watched). Comics I mostly now buy on Comixology, an iPad app.
Dematerialisation and the ease of excess
That mention of my iPad neatly brings me back to the question of space. I have a Kindle, I have an iPad, I have various other electronic devices. A book bought on Kindle takes up no space. A comic on my iPad likewise. They do though still cost money, and they do still potentially sit there unread. They add to the TBR pile, even if they don’t take up shelf space while doing so.
When I first started buying fewer physical books I realised after a little while that I was buying more on my Kindle. I was, without realising it, still buying as much as before. I was just doing so in a less apparent way. The three rules above then need to not distinguish between physical and electronic books. If the goal is to reduce my TBR pile I’ve achieved nothing by merely dematerialising it.
There’s a danger in fact with ebooks and ecomics and so on. We can think we’ve decluttered (very much a buzz word that) our homes, but in fact we’ve done nothing of the kind. A hard drive full of unplayed RPGs in pdf format, a Kindle full of unread books, programmes bought on iTunes but unwatched, none of its obvious but it’s all still there. It’s all still cultural material which is being accumulated faster than it’s being experienced. It’s purchase in place of participation.
All of which leads me to that classic first world problem, too much stuff. How very hard it is to be Western and middle class. Still, whether a serious problem or not (not, clearly) it’s still there and the rules above are my attempt at the moment to fix it. Please feel free to share if you’ve had any similar thoughts, how you’ve addressed the hosepipe of culture we’re all trying to sip from and how it’s worked out for you.
Finally, by way of acknowledgement, the idea for this post by the way came from a blog post by an old mate of mine in which he asked the question of why people purchase cultural works that then just sit there. It’s a good post and I’ll be adding some thoughts of my own in his comments section. If you have thoughts which go more to his points than what I’ve written above I’d encourage you to post them over there so he can respond.