Sunday, December 4, 2011

How to Organize Your TBR Shelf in a Guilt-Free Fashion

This year I've been lamenting the fact that most of my reading lately has been obligatory.  That isn't to say that everything I've read has been uninteresting, but rather that there is a reason I'm reading it beyond my mood.  Declaring that my reading needed to be more whim-tastic, I immediately instituted a two-pronged approach.

Not sure if this balancing act could be solved by
rearranging my bookshelf...though I'd still try!
(photo credit)
First, the books I took on my impending vacation were not allowed to be "guilt" books (need to read, obligatory books for whatever reason) I could only take books that I had a bubbling interest in reading (I ended up cheating a little bit by taking Anna Karenina, which ended up being quite difficult to read in the Caribbean--duh).

Second, I did what I always do when I need to get my life in order: reorganize by bookshelf.

For many readers, acquiring books is a balancing act.  It starts with the realization that there are more books being put on the list than are being crossed off the list.  For some people that isn't a problem: they are blessed with the ability to view bookcases of unread books as opportunities rather than responsibilities.  Others fear that the mood or the interest will pass and so begin feeling antsy or guilty.  And then there's always that mysterious breed that is so moderate they don't even understand the concept of book hoarding.  We'll not be talking about those people. Nor the first group.  We're here to discuss those that feel guilt when the unread books they own seem to be multiplying on their own in the dead of night.  This is about justification, people.  Own more books, guilt free!

Me, furrowed brow, reloading my TBR pages on Goodreads and Librarything to see if the number of books I haven't read has changed since I looked at it an hour ago.  Quickly scrolling through the list, I keep an eyebrow cocked on the lookout for a book I've read--a stowaway silently undermining my mission.  HUNDREDS of books.  How did we get here?

Curled up on a couch, steaming coffee in hand, cozy blanket wrapped around my legs, quietly traveling to another time, another place.  There is no other book in the world than the one I'm reading.  Life is organized, under control.  The days of the sagging TBR shelves are a thing of the past.

Wait, how did that happen?
It's all in the organization.  Looking at the shelves filled with books you haven't yet read and organizing them alphabetically isn't going to do anything to soothe your conscience.  Sorting them according the colors of the covers might be a fun puzzle and pleasing to the eye, but won't be much help beyond that.  Maybe you don't keep your unread books apart from the ones you've read, on a shelf of their own, but if you do (or want to) this is how I go about it.

Start here:
The main step, (and it may be a large one,) is deciding on some general types of To Be Read books you have.
  • Nonfiction: are you planning to read it straight through? or is it a coffee-table book? a reference book?  Unless you specifically plan on reading the whole thing from front to back, get it off your TBR shelf.
  • Collections: 
    • Type 1--sometimes I acquire books more for the beauty and collectability than for the simple fact that I'm dying to read it.  I don't do this as often as I would like, but it happens.  These books should be on your beautiful-books-shelf, not your TBR-shelf.
    • Type 2--personal goals/interests/challenges may not consist of a predetermined collection of books, but they should be grouped as one nonetheless.  Whether it's my growing collection of Willa Cather books or Pulitzer books, these need to be separated from the general TBR riff-raff.
  • Obligatory:  Chances are, some of the books you "need" to read are not books that you've bought for yourself.  They might be ARCs or book club selections, they might be books loaned/given to you my a friend or family member.  These need a special spot on your shelf to help with prioritizing and deciding on your next read.
  • Genres: I may be nit-picking, but I like to separate my books a bit further.  All of my classics are on their own shelf, (not shown below,) whether I've read them or not.  For me, they are like a collection of their own.  The craving to read a classic is different than a craving to read nonfiction or current adult fiction.  In the picture below you can see how I've done this: Junior Fiction on the bottom shelf, Collections and NonFiction on the 2nd shelf, followed by Adult Fiction, and the top shelf is for the more transient books: those lent to me, those needing to be returned, and obligatory reads.  (I have to be honest and say that I have more books TBR than just these...but they are at a different house right now--something I do not recommend! How am I supposed to read them if they aren't even around me??)

With your super-stealthy multitasking balancing mega-powers, as you are sorting your books, why not take the time to cull some unwanted books?  I actually do this quite often, which--I'm discovering--makes it quite difficult to build a massive library.  BUT, it has the side affect of not becoming an "extra stuff" burden.  Some of the books on my TBR shelf are there for some really flimsy reasons. (Most often they were passed on to me by a well-meaning friend or family member, and I kept them out of obligation, not interest--if you aren't interested in it, get rid of it!)

How does that feel?
I may be a bit more nuts-o about organizing my shelves than you, (it's okay, you can laugh,) but having my books properly sorted makes such a huge difference for me!  My TBR books seemed to go from an entire bookcase down to one measly shelf (the Adult Fiction is the genre I feel guiltiest about for some reason...those are the ones I worry about my tastes changing.)  A whole bookcase full of books I haven't read is overwhelming, but I can handle a shelf.

What books seem to be the most guilt-inducing for you?  Do you have any special tricks for preventing over-whelm-ation?  The end of the year, as you are putting together goals and ideas for next year's reading, is the perfect time to do some decluttering and reorganizing.  And I'm not just saying that because I love to organize.  :)


  1. O wise one, teach me! Yes, I vow to reorganize these silly TBRs. If I haven't read a book in a year, I'm probably not gonna. Off with its head!

    Here's my Sunday Salon.

  2. That's a great system you have going. I find it hard to get rid of books myself, but always admire those who can!

    I don't have a TBR pile/shelf, other than the one in my head. All my books are by genre, whether read or not. It stops it from becoming too overwhelming.

  3. I started a blog just for those unread TBR books, stacked on the floor in my bedroom. Some I've had for more than five years.

    I moved boxes of them from my former home to this one.

    First they were stacked on the floor; then on a cart; now on proper shelves. But I won't incorporate them into the "read books" shelves.

    I have managed to whittle the numbers down since starting the blog, but not as rapidly as I'd like.

    However, they don't bother me as much sitting there on the proper shelf.

    Good luck!


  4. I tend to mix my TBR with the books I've read. Recently, I reorganized and simplified my shelves: non fiction, young adult, fiction, classics. Luckily I view my bookshelves as not only conducive to holding my habit, but as a form of decorative art.

  5. I love the photo, btw. My problem is that even though my youngest child is 13 I don't want to get rid of the first, second, third grade books. They are favorites! And what about grandchildren??? It used to be that I could get rid of books that I had already read. Not anymore.

  6. I'll admit I do not understand, one bit. your system you've got. However, it beats no system - that which is happening over here. My dresser being just an obnoxious mess of books I've bought and meant to read this year. I'm thinking if I read nothing else next year but the books I intended to read this year, I wouldn't need to buy anything new. That is so depressing because I cannot stand letting a really good book not be bought. Someday I'm going to make sense of it all, I just know it.

  7. All of my books are mixed together except for the guilt inducing TBR, which are ARCs and it is only one shelf. I am trying to read more on a whim this coming year as well, but I do have a strange compulsive need to acquire books. I loved reading this post.

  8. I would love to have a much more organised system than I do. Truth time. I have no system whatsoever. They are just put on a shelf where there is space. What turns me off categorising them (which I would otherwise find very satisfying), is that I have so little shelf space I knwot his week I could organise them all, and in a few weeks I would have acquired more books and everything would have to be shuffled around to make space for them in their appropriate genre. Too much work for me 

    I do think that I might use you special space for books you have borrowed idea. I am terrible at borrowing books and then forgetting I have borrowed them and returning them months later.

  9. LOL, most excellent advice, all. I am most overwhelmed by the obligatory books which is why I've largely stopped accepting them. Ack!

  10. Ooh, this sounds fun. I know what I'll be doing tonight.

  11. Argh! This is what has been missing in my life! I love lists, and I write physical ones of which order I'd like to read the books, but maybe I need to see it on the shelf too. At the moment, my books are kinda all just crammed on because I'm lacking space, but this is something I should really be doing. At least, I need a separate space for books sent from publishers for review.

  12. Great post and helpful ideas. Thanks!

  13. Moving helps get rid of the books one will never read. Moving more than once in a season does this even more, I've found out recently. :)

    My big problem is how to do it on the computer?! I keep adding books to my GR list because I don't want to forget about them, but now the list is SO long that I do end up forgetting about many of the great ones I've put on there over the past few years. I know I need to sit down and organize, but how? Did you re-organize on your sites too, or just the physical books? Do you only put books on your To Read list on those sites that you physically own or do you add those that you want to buy as well?

  14. Hi Melody--can you please come visit me so you can organize my shelves for me?? Thanks so much, Trish.

    Ok, so seriously. I moved two years ago and STILL have not organized my bookshelves. I know--how can I call myself a book lover?! But the thing is, I can still pretty much find anything I'm looking for because I've stared at those puppies for so long.

    I like your method of organizing. My ONLY problem is figuring out what to do with the books that I'm probably not going to read. See, I have it in my head that one day books will be gone and I'll have wished I hung onto my Jodi Piccoult collection. ;)

  15. I'll be home alone for a few days in early January and plan on FINALLY getting my books organized. I used to be so anal about them, but since I got new bookshelves about two years ago --it was when Michael Jackson died, I remember blasting his greatest hits while I put them together--I've fallen into the habit of randomly sticking books where they'll fit. Such behavior does not lead to peace of mind. Thank you for the motivation!

  16. Trish at Love, Laughter, and a Touch of Insanity linked me over here, so I'm just now seeing your wonderful post.

    It is a balancing act, isn't it?!

    I especially resonate with the checking the TBR on Goodreads (in my case it's LibraryThing) every 1/2 hour looking to see if the number has magically gone down! Or scanning for that book that you forgot to mark as "read." A definite sign I've got too many books in TBR and feeling a bit guilty!

    Great system and great post!


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