The last books standing


I like to keep a good rotation going on my to-be-read shelf. Frequent infusions of new blood; nobody sticking around too long without being scooped up and read. Looking over the shelf, I have a general idea which books are new and which have been gathering some dust, but the other day I was playing around with my LibraryThing catalog and realized that I could sort my "toberead" tag by date added. A very interesting exercise! Perusing this list, I saw that there are ten books that have been waiting to be read since on or before my birthday last year (in other words, longer than a year).


A brief tour:

  • Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States and Voices of a People's History, and the final volume of John Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy are by far the mossiest stones in this collection: they've been in my TBR since before I joined LibraryThing on October 23, 2006. A People's History has been waiting to be read in full since my freshman year of college, actually.
  • Alfred Allen Lewis's Ladies and Not-So-Gentle Women: Elisabeth Marbury, Anne Morgan, Elsie de Wolfe, Anne Vanderbilt, and Their Times is the last straggler in an overly-ambitious biography-reading project I had planned back in 2008.
  • Middlesex, The Crow Road, Ravage and The Cancer Ward are the last four remnants of last year's birthday trip to Powell's.
  • Balzac's Père Goriot and Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow are a couple of stray volumes I picked up in April '08 and February '09.

Some things I find interesting about this pile:

I'm very surprised to find that it does not include any gift books, but only volumes I've bought for myself. When people give me books I haven't specifically asked for, I tend to feel a mix of eagerness to read and discuss with them, and slight anxiety that I haven't read the book yet (because I'm afraid they'll worry that I didn't like the present). Overall gift books tend to represent more of a feeling of obligation, which apparently motivates me to actually read them quickly, since none remain from longer ago than May 2009.

My first instinct was to say that I apparently leave the huge doorstops for later and gravitate toward the skinny books to read right away, but going through the catalog of things I've actually read in the past year, I think the truth is actually that I just tend to buy lots of chunksters to begin with. Nor is there the preponderance of nonfiction I would have expected; some of these books are ones I expect to be quite modern and easy-to-read novels. In the case of Middlesex, I'm pretty sure the reason I haven't made time to read it yet, is that I feel I must be the last person in the blogosphere to do so!

Also, I know that I buy more books by men than books by women, but it's still interesting that there are NO female authors in this pile. I must get to the female-penned books more quickly, overall, if none of them are left after a year.


I love the idea of working through this pile. Out with the old, in with the new! A fresh start! Only a year's worth of back-log on the old TBR! So I'm thinking I'll focus on these for a while, try to at least maintain a 1:1 ratio, reading one of these for every newer book I consume. I'm starting out by doing a tandem read of the two Zinn histories, reading a chapter of Voices followed by its analogous chapter in People's History. With a combined page count of over 1300 it's not an overnight project, but I'm enjoying it. If things are a little quiet around here for a while, now you know why.


  • I think Middlesex will go by very quickly. I always forget it's as long as it is. I powered through it especially fast. It's a story you get lost in.

  • Emily, your TBR pile and plan of attack always sound so more sensible than mine! I like how you rotate through the choices fairly quickly for the most part, too. Blogging has been bad for my non-fiction reading for some reason (I read less of it these days). Anyway, happy reading--haven't read Middlesex yet either, but I think the Balzac's the most likely title of yours I'm liable to read this year. Oh and what happened to your Augie novel? Did I miss that somehow?

  • Read Middlesex this year and thoroughly enjoyed it. Attempted reading Gravity's Rainbow three times, and failed all three times! Want to read Cancer Ward amidst others as well.

    A year worth of backlog seems like a sensible idea... mine's at about three years, but there's less than forty books....

  • Your TBR pile sounds a lot more organised than mine. I wish I only had books waiting from this year, but sadly I still own books that have to be read from a few years back. I like your philosophy. I have to figure out a way to make it work for me. Like you, when looking at a pile of TBR books I get all excited to start reading them (it usually happens at a time when I don't have time to actually start reading them, sadly).

  • I'm afraid my tbr pile is rather different; it is almost entirely made up of books that people have leant me because I absolutely must read them. I do wish friends wouldn't do this. If I want to read the book after they've told me about it I will ask to borrow it or get hold of my own copy. But no, they pass them on and I let the pile grow feeling more and more guilty about it. Every now and again I really make the effort and pick one up, but in general they just sit there.

  • I've dipped in and out of Zinn's People's History since college as well. I don't have the Voices, but your idea to read them together sounds like a great one! I wish I could join you in that venture. I also wish I could say my TBR was as well-maintained. Before we moved, I finally got rid of a few that had been there from two moves ago and still hadn't been read. I figure if they've lingered that long, I don't actually want to read them after all.

  • No, I was going to be the last person in the blogosphere to read Middlesex. Have had it so long that it is a hardcover. What keeps me from it I am not sure. And Gravity's Rainbow reminds me of grad school where it was assigned for a class. Think I benefited from reading it in a structured setting or I might have dropped it before finishing.

    This collection looks so do-able like this. Wish I could say the same of my own. Really want to work through it this summer when school is out.

  • Only a year's worth of backlog? You need a bigger TBR pile! ;) Do you have some super secret way of restraining yourself? I still have books my husband gave me for my birthday five years ago that I haven't read yet not because I have been avoiding them but because they get pushed to the back by all the other books I've acquired and haven't read yet.

  • Hi Emily,
    I'd love to read The Crow Road again! If you want, let me know if and when you're starting it and I'll join you. Only if you want, though.

  • Selena: That's what I've heard about Middlesex; good to know they won't all be dense! I've just got to get over my "everyone's already read it" issue now... :-)

    Richard: I never quite bought Augie March, although Bellow is still on my "someday" list...I think I need a group read to jump-start my interest in him, though. I don't feel the same obligation to the someday list as to the ones I've already bought, luckily. And I think your summer plans sound way sensible - lots of awesome Arabic lit, what could be better?

  • anothercookie: Pynchon definitely has that reputation...maybe that's why Gravity's Rainbow has lasted this long without being read. We'll see how I do with it! And it sounds like your TBR is at least smaller than mine, if more spread out... :-)

    Iris: I definitely know what you mean - the unread stacks always look SO appealing when one has other commitments, don't they? Luckily my summer should be pretty low-key, so hopefully I can get to a good number of these.

  • SW: Oh no, not the forcible lend! WHY do people pressure others into accepting book loans? It's totally the worst of all possible worlds: obligation, guilt, and the need to be super-careful with the book while reading. I nip those offers in the bud by telling people (truthfully) that I write in books as I read them. Usually stops the transaction before it gathers too much steam. :-)

    Sara: Yeah, I feel like Voices is adding a certain depth that People's History wouldn't have just on its own. And I took a few books from my TBR shelf when we went to sell used books at Powell's this last time, on the same theory: do I really want to read this anymore? Not so much.

  • Frances: I envy you your summer vacation! And if you just wait a little longer, maybe I will actually get around to Middlesex and your title as last person to read it will be undisputed. :-) These comments on Pynchon are actually making me raring to start it - am always driven on by a challenge!

    Stefanie: Haha, well that makes me feel a little better. But no, no special magic except another expensive hobby (knitting/sewing), a small condo with limited shelf space, & a desire to see a good rotation through the TBR stack. I've enjoyed your posts on yours & your husband's waiting collections, though - they sound magnificent! :-)

  • Marieke: Awesome, that sounds like fun! Not only because I'd love the company, but because you liked the book enough for a re-read! Very encouraging. I'll give you a poke when it's looming on the list. :-)

  • Don't feel bad about unread books gathering dust. I've had Dan Simmons's Ilium (725 pages) and Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence (802 pages) on my shelf for two or three years now. Although I read a lot of chunksters too I think it really is the size here that has put me off for so long.

    I have that same problem with gift books too, unless it's something from my Amazon wish list. I feel obligated to read something I may not have chosen on my own.

  • I'm on LibraryThing, too, but very inconsistent with adding books in my TBR to it. I know I have some books in my TBR that I've had before I joined LibraryThing (which was a couple years ago)!

    Of the books you have above, I've read "Middlesex". It didn't feel like a long book at all.

  • I'll echo the others who are amazed that you only have a year's backlog. At the start of this year, I put all my books I've had for four years on their own shelf with a promise to myself that if I didn't read them this year, I would give them away. I think the stack is down to 12 books.

    And amen on the forcible lends. A coworker and I were recently talking about the Sandman graphic novels, of which she's read and owns the first book. I mentioned that I wanted to read the series someday but that I *did not* want to borrow her copy of the first book (the only one she owns) because I wasn't ready to start a long series right now, especially if I can't get ahold of the rest of the books easily. Even after I told her all that, I still found her copy on my desk the next morning. Grrrr.

    Sigh. Thanks for the opportunity to vent away from my blog, which she reads so I can't vent there...

  • I've been reading from the (virtual) bottom of my TBR stack recently, mostly books that have been on there about 8 or 10 years. I never mind that. If it takes me another ten years to get to Don Quixote, at least I will have read it in my lifetime. Such joy! And no rush.

    @Teresa -- ha! I know you better than to force books on you, even books I know you will love. This is why you haven't gotten any Patrick O'Brian from me in the mail! All in good time...

  • A very interesting and diverse collection of soon to be read books-I know most will think I am way off or dating myself badly but I think Gravity's Rainbow is the best American novel-I know most bloggers will not agree but that is ok-I hope you will read it and post your reaction

  • EL Fay: Yeah, I think it's length for me in the case of the Zinn books, too. Thanks for the support, though; glad to know I'm not alone. :-)

    Valerie: I anticipate Middlesex being one of the quickest reads in this pile, from what everyone says. I am a bit obsessive about keeping my LibraryThing catalog up to date...glad to know some people use it more casually. :-)

  • Teresa: Haha, vent away! Some people really are aggressive about the forcible lending, aren't they? So frustrating. As for the year back-log, well that's really only a goal at this point, so save your amazement for when I've actually accomplished it! :-)

    Jenny: Absolutely, no rush! It's just a personal preference of mine that my TBR stays small & current. (And I also have a huge Powell's wishlist toward which I feel no obligation, but it's just a list of "someday" reads - things drop onto and off of it all the time, and I keep no track of how long certain books have stayed.)

    Mel: Wow, quite a claim - best American novel! The comments on Gravity's Rainbow have definitely been the most intriguing of the bunch...that one's moving up the queue. :-)

  • Hey, I was able to make use of Gravity's Rainbow just today. It has a little of everything.

    Mel U likes encyclopedic novels, and so do I, and Pynchon is the Diderot of American literature. And Melville is the Pliny. And Vollman is the Wikipedia. And, um, maybe I'll stop there.

  • Haha, I haven't read Middlesex either.. yet. My backlog is the same as yours, only about/a little over a year. Thanks to blogging. I used to not accumulate so much before then, and usually bought as I went along. The effects of blogging is to hoard!

  • This post is fascinating. I have a gigantic to-be-read stack that has spawned little stacks. I cannot get it under control. I've tried just writing down books I want to read. I've tried reading one older book for every newer one. A year or two ago I attacked the pile and gave away books I had kept so long I no longer had any desire to read them. I also would like to keep this stack small and current. But my eyes are bigger than my....

    signed bookaholic

  • Amateur Reader: Haha! That is the goofiest comment I've ever seen from you; I heartily approve. My sometimes-exasperated yet long-lasting affection for William Vollman never made better sense...

    Claire: I know! Blogging has increased my TBR as well. Although only by 3 months or so, I would say. I'm pretty good about it. There are so many temptations, though!

    Cynthia: That is the fate I fear...though really, there are plenty of fates worse than too many books to choose from! :-D My TBR is of middling size, I think (55 books right now?); I don't mind the size of the whole thing as long as there aren't books that "lag behind" the others. Not sure why this bugs for thought.

  • I'm AWFUL at reading books I own. But I love to have them on my shelf, smiling at me.

    I'm reading Pere Goriot for my book club right now! THAT one is pretty short, at least!

  • Sounds like a good plan! I'm glad to see you have Gravity's Rainbow on your pile. That's on my TBR list too, and I hope to get to it this summer. I'll look forward to reading your thoughts when you get there! I was glad to read Beckett's Molloy recently, because I think I've owned that one for a decade or so. Oops! The other one I've had forever is William James's Varieties of Religious Experience. I suppose I should get going on that one sometime soon!

  • Je vois aussi "Ravage" de Barjavel dans ta PAL (TBR in english = PAL in french : Pile A Lire) : à mes yeux, c'est un très mauvais livre de science-fiction, qui a été écrit pendant l'Occupation (en 1943) et qui rappelle ici de très mauvais souvenirs (Travail Famille Patrie, les trois mots d'ordre du pétainisme). François, le héros, y préconise de brûler les livres qui sont "l'esprit même du mal". Nous n'avons pas en France d'aussi grands écrivains de SF qu'aux États Unis, mais quand même quelques uns qui valent vraiment mieux que ce livre-là.
    Et non, tu n'es pas la dernière, je n'ai pas encore lu "Middlesex", mais j'emporte beaucoup d'auteurs américains dans mes bagages cet été.

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography