To-Read Lists, and Why I Can't Stand Them

I'm going to come right out and say it. I hate the concept of to-read list. I make lists for everything in my life: to-dos, to-buys, to-calls, etc. But to-read? To me, what I read is a spur-of-the-moment decision.

Ok, I have a to-be-read list, or a to-read list, or whatever you'd like to call it. Every booklover does. But to me, the list is an amorphous, imagined, ever-changing thing that grows and shrinks and bends and moves every time I read a new review or see a new booklist or want to learn more about a given author/subject/time period/writing style.

I've tried GoodReads for keeping track of Books I'd Like to Read, but if you ever look closely at it, it hasn't been updated in months. I've even tried keeping a wishlist of books I don't own yet but would like to, but that hasn't worked, either.

For me, my "to-read" pile is pure inspiration. I started to touch on this a few weeks ago when I discussed how book selections reflect our state of mind, but here I will elaborate: I read whatever suits my mood at any given time, on any given day. What I pick up is influenced by what I read prior, whether I'll be reading in spurts or in chunks of time, where I will be reading, who I will be with. The thought of reading through book 1, book 2, book 3 on a pre-written list makes me cringe; if I force myself to read a book because it is "next," there is a significant chance I will fail to appreciate the book just because the setting in which the book is read is just not right.

Take Matterhorn, for example. I picked this book up a few weeks ago and tried to start it, but I was traveling a lot that week, so reading in 5- and 10-page segments, and within the first chapter, I realized that this was just not the time or place for me to read this book. This doesn't mean I don't want to read it, or even that I won't - just that I haven't read it yet. Just as I wouldn't read Winter's Tale (one of my favorite books) in the summer, or War and Peace on the beach, I couldn't read Matterhorn that week.

Sure, when I receive review copies, I try to make a conscious effort to review them in a timely fashion, whether that be within a few weeks of receiving it, or on/around the pub date. It doesn't always happen, though - I'd rather read the book late and judge it fairly than force myself to read it and therefore dislike it by default.

There, now I've confessed. My non-existent to-read list is a chaotic collection of books crammed on shelves, under my dresser, in my closet, written on scraps of paper, recorded in my iPod, emailed to myself. When I stare at my shelves and nothing pops out, I turn to one of the many scribblings of book titles tucked around my life and find something new. When I stare at my shelves and a book calls my name, I'll even go so far as to put down my current read in favor of the one reaching out to me.

Anyone else? Do you plan your reading in advance, or let it come to you? Do you track what you want to read, what you want to receive/purchase/borrow, or just take books as they come in?


  1. Great post! And I'm with you - my list is less a list a more a collection of stuff I came across at some point I thought was interesting and is in absolutely no particular order of priority. I use the amazon wishlist to keep track, and often when I look back at some of the hundreds of books stored there, I can't remember why I added a particular book to my list. As far as books I actually have, I don't go by any priority there either - I'm with you in that it depends on state of mind and schedule. If there's any sort of planning in advance, it's just so that I make sure I'm not reading, like, War and Peace on a plane or Vince Flynn if I have a long, uninterrupted week for reading. Thanks again for a great post - you really got me thinking about how I do select books!

  2. At the moment, my to-read list consists of all the books I've bought that I haven't read yet because OHMYS--- it's out of hand. Other than that, I totally pick what's next haphazardly. I have lists, but I only collect them to ignore them because I like the illusion of organization.

  3. I've tried to make a to-read list. I have a list up on my blog of what I plan on reading next, but I've yet been able to keep to what I've put on it. When the time comes to pick up that next book I find myself just changing what's up there. And that list is only 3 books long at any given moment. You need to be in the mood for certain books and a predetermined list doesn't take my mood into account.

  4. I have several "Official" to read lists: One on Amazon, Visual Bookshelf on FB and one on Oh, and one on Barnes and Noble - wish list for my Nook. I don't read "in order". I read by mood. All my lists vary and change. Sometimes I wonder why I was ever interested in a particular book and off the list it goes. I keep lists to look through when I am looking for something to read. What I choose depends a lot on mood, but also on what I have read recently (or maybe a movie I have seen) - for instance, after I read "Lies My History Teacher Told Me" I could not get enough of books about American History.
    Anyway, thanks for your thoughts, Kerry - got me thinking about my lists.

  5. Hi Kerry.. I found your site from Greg's post today about his favorite blogs. =) This is a great post!! You're absolutely right that whether or not we like a book is often based on if we were in the mood to read it in the first place. I think I need to give myself permission to not necessarily read books in order for reviews if I'm not in the mood. There have been some books I didn't like that I may have liked better if I'd been more in the mood for that kind of story. I am trying right now to allow myself to "squeeze" in books that I really want to read within the review books that I sort of want to read. But I'm constantly changing how I do this, lol!

  6. I am sort of similar. I consider my TBR list as all the books on my book shelves, under my bed and on my bedside table. I try to keep a record of there somewhere written down but because otherwise I forget what I have got and risk buying a second copy, but I am terrible at remembering to update it!

    I also keep a wish-list on my blog, which is basically a list of reviews I have read on the internet and I have thought to myseld "I would like to read that".

    But I definitely don't often plan my next reads in advance. I often woner at people who are able to pick a list of 5 or 6 book and say to themselves "these are the books I will read each month". I could never do that. To me, I read whereever my mood takes me!

  7. My to-read list seems very stiff and structured...but it often breaks down to spontaneity or surprises at the last minute. I usually read books in the same series all in one go, so in that sense I know what I'll be reading 2 or 3 books from now. But once a series is over, I'm never quite sure which book or series will come next. Sometimes the library determines that, or a challenge I find online. But I definitely don't plan 15 books in advance what I'm going to read.

  8. Found you through Greg's post yesterday. I'm a bit more organized about my TBR list, but that's purely because I own most of those books and if I wasn't, I'd have so many multiple copies of books. As it is, I find duplicates still, but Goodreads has cut down on that a bit, especially having the application on my iPhone so that when I'm at the bookstore or the library, I can see what I own.

    That being said, one of my favorite parts of finishing a book is sitting in front of my bookshelves, pondering what to read next. There's a great sense of anticipation -- what if the next one is really fantastic? What if it's TERRIBLE? I love that part :)

  9. Great post and one that hits the nail on the head. I wrote about my thought process for selecting a book recently as well.

  10. I'm not so much on the TBR. I didn't even understand this acronym for a while on other people's blogs. I just grab what sounds good to me at the moment. Having an outrageous collection of books (growing by the day) to select from helps.
    Just found you through New Dork and happy to have found you.

  11. Great post! I'm overwhelmed by my to read list! I add alot of stuff on it--books I want to read and books I want to look into and keep an eye out for.

    I don't plan in advance what I will read though. I tend to just know what I'm in the mood and take it by day.

  12. Hey there! I'm a new follower! I do not plan my reading. I tried this year to do a reading challenge and I don't think I'll complete it because I kinda like to read what calls out to me too! Great post! I'm glad I found your blog (via The New Dork Review of Books). I'll come back by often!


  13. Thanks everyone for stopping by - it's so nice to hear that I'm not the only one that can't do the straightforward booklist. Reading comments on other blogs (and even my own) made it seem like everyone has a strict list of what's up next, which boggled my mind!

    Greg - Thanks again for the recommend!

    Jane - I know exactly what you mean on the illusion of organization.

    Red - Exactly! Lists can't account for moods.

    Ann - I do that too, with subjects. After finishing Physick Book of Deliverance Dane (which Kate recommended!) I'm itching for more on Salem and the witch trials.

    Jenny - I think that reviewing can make it tricky to plan what to read next, but I do try to give all books for review a fair shot, which means reading it (to an extent) when I'm in the mood for it.

    Becky - Thanks for stopping by! I liked your blog. Those people with the "what I'll read this month" lists are the ones that got me thinking about this in the first place.

    Vicki - I sometimes read a series in order too, though I often intersperse with other books (like my Wheel of Time reread)

    HomeBtwPages - I LOVE that part of selecting my next book - they are all such mysteries until I've read them! That's part of why I have such a hard time culling my stash, whether read or unread.

    David - Great post (as always)!

    Leah, Jamie and Lauren - Thanks so much for stopping by. I'm loving hearing how other people keep their "to-read" lists (or don't keep them, as the case may be).

  14. I've gome to the conclusion that the TBR pile is less a thing for me than a state of mind -- there will simply always be more books that I want to read, and when I joined Goodreads, I didn't even try to make a list.

    I don't really have a particular way of selecting what I want to read; sometimes I plan in advance a little, but then I might end up changing my mind. And there are times when it somehow becomes the 'right' time to read a book, where it wasn't before... So I suppose I choose books by a combination of instinct and planning.

  15. David H - I'm pretty much the same way. I'm not sure why I bothered trying to make a Goodreads list in the first place - just keeping up with it is too much work.

  16. I have a rather free-form "to be read" PILE, but I would find an actual list altogether too much pressure!

  17. I agree! TBR piles, yes. TBR lists, no.


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