The Five Stages of Dealing With Your TBR Pile

Any experienced reader knows the lingering stress of the TBR (To-Be-Read) Pile. As someone who is a reader and also works for a publisher that contributes to lengthening many such piles, I want to reassure you: you are not alone. I’m here to walk you through the process, show you there are others all around you dealing with TBR pile shock, and help you and your Goodreads profile find peace.

Stage One: Denial

I can do this, you think, staring down that list of books the way Rocky/Karate Kid/that quarterback in Remember the Titans faced their respective opponents. Determination. Focus. One page at a time.

(Did I have to look up a list of underdog sports movies? Yes. My greatest athletic achievements are literary triathlons, which consist of reading a book, discussing the book, and explaining why the book was better than the movie.)

Yes, you have a daunting TBR pile in front of you, but it can and will be conquered, you assure yourself, even as the list fills a thick binder. Even as you add three books for every one you check off. Even as you hear the faint but unmistakable sound of your high school math teacher lecturing on statistical probability and laughing at your baseless optimism.

But the more you stare at the list of books you want to read, promised your friends you’d read, and feel an obligation to read to better yourself as a person, reality sets in: your TBR pile may be getting out of control. Which triggers…

Stage Two: Anger

Suddenly, interfering tasks like housework and sleeping seem irritating and unnecessary, all taking up valuable reading time. You may find yourself lashing out in anger at bosses for expecting you to be present at your job, family members for having conversations with you, dust for falling, and anything else that distracts you from a page-turning read. This is normal.

Well, not exactly normal, but we’re book nerds. We have different standards.

Alternately, you can blame authors for writing too many good books. “It’s not like I have a choice. If they’d just stick with boring plots and so-so characters I might put down these books and actually get some work done!”

Even if this anger is misdirected, don’t worry. It’s part of the process. Breathe. Focus on the good things books have brought into your life. Make a sensible budget. Relax. Pre-order five upcoming releases.

Was that part of the original plan? No. But remember, you’re working through stages here. It’s going to happen. Which leads us to…

Stage Three: Bargaining

And by this I mean buying more books, ones that are irresistible bargains, whether it’s that ebook special you can’t pass up or the buy-one-get-one on paperbacks at your local store. No such thing as too many books, right? (You tell yourself this as you double-stack your shelf and hope there’s not some sort of fire code against literal TBR towers around your house.)

By this point, your excuses and reassurances aren’t quite as manic as in the denial stage. Practical considerations start to surface: “It was a gift,” “I joined a book club,” and “I must singlehandedly rocket multiple authors to the bestseller list” are frequent explanations.

At some point, though, whether it’s through the gentle concern of others or the sheer volume of your list, you have to say no. You return the book to the library unread. You pass by the bargain bin without picking up that series you keep meaning to get to. You apologize to your friend and say you can’t start War and Peace right now even though you’re sure it’s life-changing.

With this admission, you have hit bottom, arriving at…

Stage Four: Depression

Soul-crushing reality sets in here. No. You won’t ever get to all the books you want to read. You might miss the novel everyone’s buzzing about (or at least read it long after the hype is over and someone has already spoiled the ending). That list of “100 Classic Novels to Read Before You Die” might be the death of you. Your TBR pile will only grow.

The world is a terrible place.

Until you think, Wait. Is it so bad that there are more wonderful books out there than I could ever read? Taking you to…

Stage Five: Acceptance

Maybe it isn’t a problem that it’ll take years to get around to a friend’s recommendation or that you’re two books short of your reading challenge or that your TBR list will only get longer and longer.

Maybe it means that we live in a time where books are accessible, where literacy rates are high, where we can afford the luxury of books and even help some authors make a living talking to imaginary people. There are thousands of stories around us, and that’s a reason to be thankful. We can read to learn, to escape, to travel to new places, to feel emotions, and to be a part of experiences we’ll never otherwise have.

You and I are readers. It’s what we do and who we are. No sense in fighting it. The TBR pile might be there, and it might never be finished…but isn’t that the fun of it all?

So go ahead. Add another book to the list!

Okay, readers, admit it: which stage are you in right now?

28 thoughts on “The Five Stages of Dealing With Your TBR Pile

  1. I live in the “acceptance” stage. And occasionally, because I review dozens of books for authors and publishers, I get overwhelmed and make a list of what “has” to be read, and then slip in a few of my “want to reads” in between. And that works!

  2. I have made a planner with my review schedule and review due dates. I’ve been slipping in a couple TBRs in a month around my review schedule. With a clear plan of what to read, I’ve been knocking things out!

  3. Great post. I tend to go through every stage every time I go into Lifeway. I love that you reminded us of how blessed we are to live in a time and place where we’re not only taught to read, but have access to material to read.

    • Thanks, Elizabeth! I always feel so peaceful after coming out of a bookstore…but only if I’ve told myself repeatedly that not every great book has to be my next one.

      Amy Green
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  4. Oh, I LOVE this post! I laughed until I almost cried… A warning though: don’t eat or drink anything while reading it!

    I am definitely in the Bargaining stage. As a book reviewer I don’t even have to limit myself to how much money I can afford to spend on books – so I request way more than I should!

    • So glad you enjoyed it! And it’s difficult to limit your book purchases (I say this as someone who went into B&N this weekend to buy stationary and came out with three novels).

      Amy Green
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  5. I live in the acceptance stage. I know I will never live long enough to read every book I have, but hey I have 2 daughters and 4 granddaughters and they all like to read. I have told my daughters when something happens to me they will not get money but they will inherit some good books. Lol! I have 2 small rooms in my house as my libraries and each bookshelf is full and doubled and some triple filled. I keep buying. I have 90.00 something dollars worth of new books coming in Saturday from CBD. I can’t wait to see them and write them down in my notebook that I have for each room and then rearrange so I can find places to put them. This is what I tell people when they say I don’t need another book. “At least I have a great library to pick from when I finish the book I’m reading”.

  6. This is hilarious! I’m sure we can all relate to it. I think I’m mostly in acceptance, but I sometimes revert back to one of the others. (I would include anxiety in with the depression stage). I’ve already accepted that I won’t live long enough to read all the 2,000 books in my Kindle account or the shelves and boxes of books I have stored in various places in my house, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting more! I rationalize by thinking that I’d rather have too many books to choose from than not enough. I review books for authors, so I usually keep quite busy with that. I have to work in some of the other books I want to read around my reviewing schedule. So many amazing books, so little time!

    • Ebooks probably made this an even more challenging issue. I’m glad you’ve found a happy reading schedule, Winnie (although, like you said, you’ll probably always wish there was more time to read).

      Amy Green
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  7. Oh, I LOVE it! I keep cycling through the stages….I was just at “acceptance” last week then started through “denial” earlier this week as I’ve gotten another manuscript to read, 5 books borrowed out from the library that are due soon, and 30+ books via NetGalley to read and review….and today I was at “anger” when I got home from work but this post made me laugh out loud at myself. Thanks!

  8. I tend to go between being overwhelmed (mostly when I have reading assignments/reviews I’ve committed to and need to get through), to acceptance that my pile is NEVER going to disappear because there are way to many books in this world and more are being published daily…oh no, I think I’m getting overwhelmed again. 😉 But, overall, I love reading and think I would be very sad if my TBR pile dwindled down to 1 or 2 books. Luckily that’ll never happen! 😀

  9. I live in the Acceptance stage while keeping an itemized list of the review books I have to read (in the order received, of course)… And I *might* add in bargain books every time I hit Mardel. Not my fault, they just kind of jump into the cart and look so lonely if I try to put them back on the shelf. Just expand the library by another bookshelf or two. Problem solved. At least for this month.

  10. So reading your post has brought me to the acceptance phase. 🙂 Thanks for the intervention! I do occasionally hit depression, especially when I so many good books sitting there waiting to be read! (Loved your post, BTW.)

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  13. I’ve been reading long enough that I’ve made it to the acceptance stage….. several times. 😉 It’s a never-ending cycle, though, really.

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