10 Reading Hacks For Finally Getting Through Your Overstacked TBR Pile

So you want to have the best TBR pile (that’s “to be read” pile, for anyone who isn’t totally up to date on the lingo of the book-obsessed) ever. I don’t blame you. The TBR pile is sacred space — but sacred space that far too often devolves into book lovers’ chaos: filled with last year’s best sellers, this year’s literary one hit wonders, that book all your friends keep recommending but that you haven’t gotten around to reading yet, a handful of classics from your 11th grade reading list that you always meant to finish. It’s a trap many a book-lover (make that: every book-lover) has fallen into at one point or another — gathering every single book you’ve ever thought of maybe possibly reading into one general area, and calling it your TBR pile. (A habit that online shopping has made both infinitely easier and infinitely more chaotic.)

And sure, while it’s tempting to want to read nearly everything, if you’re replacing every TBR you’ve read with three or four new ones, the rate at which you add books will begin to far exceed your actual ability to read them: the tragedy of every reader’s life. The key to a killer TBR pile, then, is prioritizing — a feat easier said than done. The good news is, this seasoned book lover (and TBR trial-and-error expert) has got your back.

Check out these 10 tips for putting together the best TBR pile ever — and then actually reading your way through it.

1Step one: whittle it down.

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If you’re starting from TRB pile rock bottom (see symptoms above) then this is the painful but necessary first step to getting a handle on all those books you’ve been planning to read, but somehow haven’t gotten around to (and let's be honest with ourselves: never will.) This may actually require you to physically step away from your books and reflect: what kind of reader do you want to be? What are your literary priorities — and have they changed since you added that first book to your pile (years) ago? Are there any unnecessary redundancies in your TBRs (say, 11 books about back-to-the-land living, when three or four will suffice?) Once you have clear answers to some of these basic questions, you’ll have a better idea of what should stay in your TBR pile and what should go.

2Then, stack it back up.

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Just as important as removing those TBRs-no-more (or at least, TBRs-not-right-now) is adding books that genuinely belong in your TBR pile. Did your favorite author recently release a new title you haven’t had a chance to pick up yet? Have you been meaning to read last year’s National Book Award winners? Are you honestly eager to devour Fire and Fury before its 15 minutes of fame are over? If so, add those to the stack — just make sure you’re being discerningly picky, otherwise it’ll be back to step one for you before you know it.

3Make sure it’s an actual, you know, PILE.

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Or shelf, or satchel, or bin. The point is, make sure all your TBRs are clearly arranged in the same place. Having the books on your to-read list stacked all over the place makes it difficult to truly visualize your pile and start to read your way through it.

4Organize by date.

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By date, I mean the date each book landed in your TBR pile. You’ll encounter plenty of different opinions on this (assuming you’re the kind of person who regularly seeks out conversations about TBR piles.) Some folks recommend arranging your books by publication date or by genre; others by length or in the order you most want to read them. In my experience, organizing your TBR pile in the order it became said pile is the best way to go — it’s a simple fact of bookworm life that the longer books languish in a TBR pile, the less likely they are to be read.

5Consider… wait for it… a SECOND pile (or shelf, or satchel, or bin, etc.)

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One thing critically important for all you TBR-ing readers to understand is that all your books aren’t TBRs — there are books you want to read at some point in your life (say, during your next long vacation or when you finally retire) and then there are books that belong at the top of your TBR pile. These are not the same thing. Your TBR pile is for the sacred, urgent, intensely curated books that are of utmost reading priority. All the other surfaces in your apartment are for any other books you anticipate wanting to read. At some point.

6Add books mindfully.

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As described above, every book you want to read isn’t necessarily TBR pile material. The books that make your TBR pile are the books that, should you, say, get stranded on the subway (or accidentally run over by it) you’d want to have with you (or have read before you died.)

7Read diversely.

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It’s easy to get distracted by fleeting personal interests and book FOMO. Sometimes the book everyone is talking about on Twitter isn’t a book that belongs in your TBR pile. By the same token, that newfound obsession with making your own jam doesn’t mean you need to devour every jam-making and berry-growing book on the planet. Keep your TBR pile diverse — be mindful about adding new authors, books in translation, writers from a variety of backgrounds, authors of color, a variety of genres, etc.

8Add a healthy dose of major award winners — but don’t stop there.

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Even casual readers are familiar with the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and the Nobel Prize, but there are tons of other great book awards out there; some more well-known than others. Check out the Man Booker Prize, the Hugo Award, the Lambda Literary Award, the Pushcart Prize, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize — I could go on and on. Presses large and small also often offer their own awards — with the prize of publication — as well.

9Repeat steps one and two.

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Your reading tastes and interests are likely to evolve over time. Books that are timely this year may be fairly irrelevant next year. Every so often — say, once a year — reevaluate the books that are still hanging out in your TBR pile, and don’t be afraid to move a few of those to your “to be read EVENTUALLY” shelves. Then add anything hot off the presses that deserves the coveted space you just made.

10Make your TBR pile a priority.

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This one might sound obvious. But any seasoned reader knows that, all too often, the TBR pile becomes a space to store books you simply haven’t had time to get to. Your TBR pile should be the priority of your reading life. Sure, you can’t always pull your next book off the top of the stack — there’s school reading, reading for work, books for your book club(s), that novel your best friend is nagging you to read — but whenever possible, those books you’ve deemed worthy of the TBR should be the books you’re most willing to make time for.