Culling My TBR List and My Obligations to My Past Selves

If you look at my Goodreads “want-to-read” list chronologically, it’s a pretty fascinating archive of what was most important to me in each year of my recent history.

The list never stops growing for a few reasons: 1) there are always more books than there is time to read them; 2) I have a tendency to hoard items and interests rather than sloughing them off; 3) the nostalgia I retain for the period in which I curated the list tricking me into thinking that someday I’ll read one of those 350+ books rather than requesting the latest flashy-covered bestseller from the library.

It occurred to me recently that a “want-to-read” list–also known as a “TBR” (to-be-read) list–doesn’t serve a purpose if you don’t actually want to read the books on it. I set out to cull it down to a manageable and authentic TBR, and soon discovered patterns in my former selves via the titles they added.

In 2013, I added a lot of books written by long-dead white dudes that’ve been hailed as American classics–think Hemingway’s famous tomes A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises, Orwell’s Animal Farm, and everything Steinbeck has ever written.

Did I actually want to read these books? Probably not.

Did I want to have read them in order to reference them and sound smart to my peers, especially the similarly mediocre albeit alive white dudes who surrounded me in my senior year of high school? For sure.

That year included a lot of overanalyzing while driving around in circles around the lake in the center of my hometown, both alone and with friends. We spent a lot of time discussing the pass, the future, and the social issues we were now old enough to start understanding. It only makes sense that I’d feel compelled to read stories that spoke to that overstimulated ennui disguised as existential pondering.

My list-culling started here, since I no longer really care about reading The Road or Trainspotting just to prove that I can. I cut out about 50 books by old dead white guys writing about an America I never experienced through a lens that I can’t relate to.

In 2014, I started thinking more about representation in literature. College was making me more and more woke each day, and I became convinced that everything authored by a person of color had more gravitas (this may or may not be true, but the idea isn’t substantially less problematic than its opposite). I still showed an interest in YA, but leaned toward “intelligent” (a.k.a. diverse) YA.

On the whole, good for 2014 me for starting to abandon the idea that I needed to be reading books deemed important by a white-dominated patriarchy. Present-day, however, I removed probably 30 books from this section of the list, keeping only the ones I’m genuinely interested in.

2015 piqued my interest in both graphic novels and poetry books. Fewer Words With More Weight seems to have been the name of my game, both in consumption and expression. I frequented the Portland Poetry Slam and the spoken word poetry shows at college, carried a notebook with me everywhere to collect lines to develop into my own pieces, and thought maybe someday I’d author a chapbook of my own.

I still adore graphic novels and will pick one up from time to time, but I’ve fallen out of love with poetry as a genre. I painstakingly went through all of the titles on the list and cross-referenced the Philly library system catalog. Any title not in circulation got removed from the list.

The following year I added a strangely small number of books: just 24. Hypothetically that would’ve been a manageable number to actually read over the course of the year, but it’s always been more about collecting the titles for me. All but two of those 24 books–A Little Life and Angela’s Ashes–were unfamiliar to present-day me, so it was easy to cull them.

No patterns to speak of in 2016, which tells you just as much about that year’s version of me. I was incredibly busy with school and working multiple jobs and juggling friends, so I didn’t exactly have time to be interested in any particular topics. I did still read, mostly over the summer, but there was no defining aspiration that guided my TBR.

I added one book to the TBR in January 2017, and then I seem to have either abandoned Goodreads entirely or simply put my habit of collecting titles on hiatus until September when I jumped back into it briefly. Only 10 books made the list in the whole year, and they’re a strange mix of classics (like Frankenstein), memoirs, and a nonfiction tech bro pseudo-psychological manifesto.

Much of 2017 was spent traveling, and my choice in books was primarily dictated by whatever the hostel’s take-one-leave-one shelf had in stock. I read to pass time, not because there was anything specific I was dying to read.

This year I’ve added 45 books, mainly memoirs. I love reading memoirs, including the obscure ones that aren’t bestsellers. My 2018 TBR additions feel authentic, and I’m actively excited to read every single title on there.

Culling my want-to-read list was a moderately grueling process, but it wasn’t just about reducing excess books. It was about releasing the feeling of being beholden to my past selves.

I no longer care about name-dropping books into conversations like 2013 me did. I read diversely because I think it’s important, not because I agree with 2014 me that I’m more intellectual for it. I’m nowhere near as captivated by poetry collections as 2015 me.

I don’t owe anything to my 17-year-old self who truly though that reading Cormac McCarthy would make me cooler or to my 19-year-old self who perversely yearned for a broken heart to write angsty poetry about.

What we read is a reflection of who we are and who we want to be. And these days, I’m way more committed to being authentic, genuine, and thoughtful about those things in the present, rather than attempting to relive the past.

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