A moving pile of books
A moving pile of books

Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow is about... well, frankly I've no idea what it's about because I've never read it. I've always wanted to read it because it's said to be one of the weirdest, wildest and most controversial novels ever written. I've just never found the right time to take it on, and now I wonder if I ever will before I die.

So, there it sits on my bedside table, reminding me of my own mortality as it looms over my alarm clock like the Grim Reaper patiently watching time tick by.

Of course, it's not the only book I've always meant to read but never got round to picking up. Like all readers, I have a “to-be-read” (TBR) pile. And it grows on my bedside table like the head-sprouting Hydra of Greek mythology – every time I take a book from it to read, two more seem to grow back in its place.

It's got to the point where the more books I buy, the more precarious it becomes, swaying with classics, recent prize-winners, impulsive buys, and gifts from well-meaning friends and family. It's threatening to crush me in my sleep. So if you, like me, are struggling to conquer your TBR pile, here are some tips to tackle it once and for all.

You need a physical pile

Edmund Hillary didn't conquer Everest by just walking up to it one day and hoping for the best. He spent weeks at Base Camp looking up at the summit and chewing over the route with Tenzing. You'll need to do the same (and let this website be your sherpa).

The most important thing: it needs to be a physical pile, not on a notepad or in an app. Just as The Ancient Mariner had to wear his albatross, you need to be able to look your pile in the proverbial eye as a constant reminder of the job at hand.

Keep it close at all times

Get all your TBR books in one place, on a prominent shelf, by the TV, in the fridge – anywhere that'll remind you to stop procrastinating and pick up a book. Better still, put it on your bedside table, making it the last thing you see before you go to sleep, and the first thing you see when you wake up. Soon, you'll have no choice but to conquer your TBR pile, not necessarily because you want to, but, as a mountaineer might say, “because it's there.”

Set yourself goals

Your goal can't just be to finish the pile by the end of the year. That's far too nebulous. So make yourself a promise: that you'll read a certain number of pages a day - 50, say, around 30 minutes worth – whether it's before you go to bed or just after you wake up. And if you're one of the millions of Brits forced to work from home due to Covid-19, why not use the time you would otherwise spend commuting as your sacred, uninterrupted reading time? 

Size matters!

What, really, is the optimum size of a book pile? Well, in my view, it wants to be intimidating enough that it sparks you into action, but not so intimidating that you want to throw a towel over it and re-read Nineteen-Eighty-Four

Yes, removing a book might akin to choosing which relative needs to be left out to accommodate granny in a socially-distanced Rule-of-Six family lunch. But granny needs to eat as much as you need to read. Trim that pile before it gets out of hand.

Whittle it down

You can start by eliminating any book that's been on the pile for more than 12 months – if you've not got round to it by now, really, why is it on your list?

Next, ask yourself: what are my literary ambitions? If you've got seven books on the fall of the Third Reich, maybe five of them can go (same goes for books featuring a certain type of lead character, or any other theme). And if you're still struggling to chop it down, come up with some sort of ranking system – whether it's by favourite authors, themes or genres – and cut away the bottom four. It can be a painful process, but clarity is key to conquering that pile.

Make a second holiday pile

This is where you decide what's urgent and what's not. There will be books you've always wanted to read, and the ones you know you will, one day. The latter are best left for meandering poolside holidays or when you retire. Those books can go on any other surface of your home. But NOT on your book pile. Your book pile is a place for the books you need to read, now.

Timely books are the books for now

The world being as it is, there never seems a bad time to read something about politics. But right now, with a US election looming and Brexit still whispering in the winds of change, perhaps now is the time to bulk up your list with a few political tomes. Same goes for anything about climate change or anything else the world is talking about right now. If there's a book on your list that could be irrelevant by this time next year, or if it's a novel set in a current political, social or cultural climate, now is the time to bump it to the top of the pile.

Curate your pile by season

Winter is coming, as George R R Martin likes saying, and as the days grow darker and SAD kicks in, do you really need another depressing book to drag you down? Maybe sad books are best read in summer, especially in the current climate. You could even split your pile into four categories, each for a different season. What are the kinds of books you'd most want to read in winter, spring, summer and autumn? If your goal is to get through your list by the end of the year, this is a great way to break it up.

Mix it up

The order in which you read your pile is crucial to success. Novel upon novel about the same thing can lead to burn out. So never read the same genre back-to-back. Instead, try following a classic with some modern fiction, a historical non-fic with a romance novel, and so one. Whatever your taste, variety will keep your engine running.

Stop buying books!

This just goes without saying. Painful though it may be, if you're really committed to denting your TBR pile, you're going to have to go cold turkey on your book-buying habit. It may take a Herculean effort, but that head-growing Hydra must be slain. Of course, buying books for friends and loved ones remains heartily encouraged.

What did you think of this article? Let us know at editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk.

Image: Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

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