Do you love books and / or read books for your profession? Are you short on time? Do you have a ‘to be read’ (TBR) pile that’s taller than you are? Bonus points if it’s taller than your home. (Raising my own hand for all of these).
I was a voracious reader in my younger years. I devoured multiple books each month, even in the midst of exams and looming coursework deadlines.
My pace slowed when I entered the professional world.
Then my reading almost stalled when I had children. Apart from reading ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’, ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’, and the ‘Oi Frog’ series. Every night. For the next two years.
I still managed one book a month while my children were babies / toddlers, but I was exhausted and usually passed out after a page, waking an hour later with a book-corner stabbing me in one eyeball and one cheek resting in the melted bowl of ice cream I’d decided to treat myself to.
The trouble was, while my reading stalled, my TBR pile continued to grow. What was once a manageable garden shrub is now a metaphorical Mirkwood of unread books creeping around my home office and strangling my Kindle.
Now that Big Bro is settled into school life and Little Bro is gradually gaining more independence, I finally feel ready to get out the hedge-trimmer and start reading my way through my enormous TBR forest. One of my resolutions this year is to read a lot more books, and so far, using many of the steps outlined below, my reading rate has tripled in 2023.
Some of these tips have helped me personally. Others don’t suit my own life but I know they help others and may help you. Some are tips I continued using even through the baby years. I want to share them here in case they are useful to you.
TIP 1. MAKE A LIST
When my TBR started growing wild, I (luckily) had the foresight to make an electronic alphabetical list (by author) of all the books I owned and in what format. I then highlighted the entries as I read them. I also kept a separate list of all the books and authors I heard about that I wanted to read.
As my TBR grew I made sure to keep these lists up to date, even knowing that I wouldn’t get to many of the titles or authors for months or even years.
My electronic TBR is much longer than I’d like to admit. However, I’m so glad this list is not contained in my chaotic, sleep-deprived brain. It keeps me anchored and also stops me buying loads more books, or duplicates of books I already have, and bankrupting myself. If I do get a gift card or a little book-spending money, I buy books I’m already interested in rather than at random.
If your TBR is any larger than, say, ten books then I highly recommend taking the time to make an up-to-date list of all the ones you have and all the ones you want to read but don’t yet own. Keep this list up to date, and your tired writer / reader brain will thank you.
TIP 2. PRIORITISE
I’ve broken down my TBR further into higher and lower priority lists to help me get to the higher priority books faster. The books you consider high priority depend greatly on yourself and your circumstances. As a writer and editor, the books on my priority list are those in my favoured genres and writing craft books.
Inevitably, after a few months I will fancy a change, and will then pick a title from my lower priority list.
TIP 3. SCHEDULE TIME FOR READING
Shocking, I know.
Unfortunately, as helpful as many of these tips are, they will only get you so far if you don’t actually make time in your schedule for reading.
Luckily for me, reading is one of my favourite forms of self-care. I love curling up in a chair with a snack and a great book. It also provides lots of inspiration and refills my creativity. Yet it’s still so easy to get distracted if I don’t specifically set aside blocks of time for reading (housework and social media are the biggest evening time-sucks for me). This year I’ve made reading a higher priority in my schedule and so far it is really paying off.
TIP 4. SMALL CHUNKS OF TIME
If (like me) you struggle to write in small chunks of time (e.g. waiting for appointments, car journeys etc), then you could dedicate that time to reading instead (assuming your little cherubs are either absent or engaged in something else). This works really well for me because these small blocks of time are enjoyable and add up quickly. And, after years of hinting, my family are finally starting to realise that I prefer reading in the car to in-depth discussions about who would win in which Pokémon battle.
TIP 5. CARRY LITERATURE EVERYWHERE
On a related note, carry at least one book or e-reader or audiobook around with you everywhere. I love having a book to read if I get unexpected chunks of ‘free’ time, and honestly I feel naked leaving the house without some form of literature with me.
TIP 6. SPEED READING
There are many books which I like to read slowly and savour, like eating a delicious tray of sushi.
Other times, I want to read something quickly, or re-read something, or skim-read. In these cases, speed reading is a really useful skill which will enable you to take in large amounts of information quickly.
The way we are taught to read in school gets us into the habit of slowing right down and reading text word by word, and for some books this is exactly how I want to read them. However, it is possible to train your brain to quickly look over larger blocks of text and glean their meaning without having to sound out each individual word.
Scroll down the average Facebook feed long enough and sooner or later you will find a post with a block of text where the letters in each word have been rearranged. However, as long as the first and last letters are in their correct positions, many human brains can still easily read and decipher the text. Brains are good at picking up familiar patterns in text, and many brains can read at a higher speed than we usually allow them to.
Another advantage is that it requires more focus and concentration than a more leisurely reading speed, which might be helpful for you if you struggle to concentrate when reading, or if you are easily distracted by other tasks.
I personally speed-read by scanning down a paragraph of text and training my eyes around the centre line of the block, glancing along each row, working my way down. This gives me the gist of a paragraph quickly and easily (though, as I said, I choose which books to speed-read and which to read slowly so I don’t miss details).
Speed-reading takes practice and it may take time for you to find the techniques that work best for you. Plus, it is important to remember that people naturally vary in their reading speed, both between and within individuals (e.g. depending how many times the kids got up the previous night). You don’t have to be reading at your ‘top speed’ for it to be a useful and enjoyable activity.
TIP 7. AUDIO BOOKS
I love the audio book revolution, especially as it is allowing more and more readers access to stories which they may previously have been unable to consume.
Personally I haven’t been able to get into audio fiction as I find it too easy to get distracted by real life. A grubby kid barges into the kitchen, or another driver cuts across me in a lane, and I’ve lost the thread of the story and my immersion within it. However, I know audio books are a great option for many people.
If you don’t get on with audio for one genre or type of content, don’t necessarily rule it out for other types. Although I don’t get on with audio fiction, I listen to non-fiction podcasts whenever I’m cooking or doing housework. I’m an auditory learner and I can take in factual information easily even while I’m doing other things and while the kids are crawling around my feet.
TIP 8. BE MINDFUL OF YOUR ENERGY LEVELS
If you can, avoid planning reading time both during your peak creative time and the time when you have the least amount of energy. This is easier said than done with children, day jobs etc, but try your best!
This is something I’m still working on. Neither of my children sleep well (therefore, neither do I). The trouble is, the best time for me to schedule reading is the end of the day, by which point I’m absolutely knackered. I sit down to read, and half the time I read one page before ‘suddenly’ waking up an hour later with an aching neck and my Kindle stuck to my face.
I’m hoping this will become easier as my kids grow older, but time will tell…
TIP 9. SET A READING TARGET
I personally don’t do this, mainly because I have to allow lots of flexibility in all my goals because, well, children. I have loose targets in my work life of things I want to do and achieve, but I can’t set rigid goals because it’s all the more frustrating and disheartening when I get the inevitable phonecall from school asking me to collect my vomiting mini-human.
However, I hear this helps a lot of people read the books they want to and to keep on top of their TBRs. Some use sites such as Goodreads to do this. I keep my reading lists private, but it’s down to personal preference.
Set a monthly or yearly reading target if that will help you stay on track with increasing your reading!
TIP 10. CHEAT: SYNOPSES
As with speed reading, this depends on the specific book and what you want from it.
I prefer to read books myself where possible. However, there have been occasions when I’ve needed to become familiar with a book very quickly and didn’t have time to read it (e.g. if I hear of a title with a similar premise to my own and want to quickly check whether there is much overlap). When this happens I search online to see if there is a detailed synopsis available which I can read instead.
I don’t do this often as I would much rather read the actual book, but it’s a useful option if you need a book summarised quickly.
TIP 11. CHEAT: WATCH THE ADAPTATION
Sacrilege. Yes, I’m expecting my removal from the bookworm club any day now.
Don’t get me wrong: if I can help it I will always try to read a book before watching the film or TV series based on said book. However, if the story is relevant enough to your own novel or piece of work and you don’t have time to read it (or you’re not able to read it) then you could commit literary treason and watch a version of the story on your screen instead (shudders).
Obviously, this should be used with caution as visual media is very different and books usually need to be adapted to suit.
TIP 12. DON’T BE AFRAID TO DNF A BOOK
This is one I personally struggle with.
As a writer and editor myself, I know how much time and hard work go into writing and producing a book. Even if I find that a book isn’t to my taste, I often continue reading as homage to the effort and dedication given to that book.
This can be useful in helping us learn what we do and don’t like in books, and learning the techniques, tropes etc we wish to avoid in our own work. However, whether or not to continue reading is a judgement call based on the individual book and our own temperament, preferences, and circumstances.
It’s one thing to carry on reading a book we don’t like so we can learn from it, but the mistake I (and others) often make is to struggle and suffer through a book we absolutely hate because, somehow, we feel we owe it to the author.
So my tip to others (and myself): YOU ARE ALLOWED TO DNF A BOOK!
Life is too short to read books we hate.
TIP 13. ACCEPT YOU WILL NEVER READ ALL THE BOOKS
On a related note…
There are so many amazing books and authors in the world, and it hurts to admit to myself that, with the best will possible, I will still never be able to read every book I want to in my lifespan. Even if I didn’t have children or an editing business or a household to run, and even if I woke in the morning and did nothing else all day except read, I would still never read all the amazing books I want to.
The thing that really makes my eyes sting… I know I will probably never read every title and author in my TBR and on my wishlist. Especially as they keep growing.
So, once again for those at the back, YOU ARE ALLOWED TO DNF A BOOK! Also, if the blurb, topic, or genre doesn’t interest you, then don’t read it. Even if highly recommended to you by others. In addition, don’t add something you wouldn’t normally read to your TBR just because your friend published it (though maybe buy a copy to support them, if you can afford it. Or boost them in other ways if you can’t).
TIP 14. IT’S ABOUT THE JOURNEY, NOT THE DESTINATION
Don’t let anxiety about your huge TBR suck all the joy out of reading.
It can be easy to fall into the trap of going through the books in your list as a tickbox exercise without actually experiencing, enjoying, or remembering the stories you are reading.
This may be okay in some instances (e.g. a non-fiction book you already know well).
However, how would you feel if you (miraculously) managed to check off every item on your TBR, then realised you can’t remember any of the stories you read, didn’t allow any of them to pull you in, and didn’t allow yourself to enjoy them because you were always trying to get to the next one?
Isn’t it all a bit pointless if we worry more about the size of the TBR than about enjoying the journey through it?
I’ve assembled fourteen tips, strategies and techniques for helping you manage, work through, and enjoy your (enormous) TBR pile. Some have helped me. Some have helped others. Some may work for you.
Ultimately, make sure you record your TBR (somewhere) so you can keep track of it. Subsequently, make sure you prioritise reading in your life (especially if it is vital for your profession and / or self-care), and find ways to discover and escape into stories you love whenever you can.
BEFORE YOU GO…
How is your TBR looking? Is it a small pile on your bedside table, or have you lost sight of the top?
Please feel free to comment on the article and/or contact me if you have any questions!
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Disclaimer: generative AI
I do not use generative AI to produce or inform my blog, my images, or my fiction. All of my content is generated by the chaotic firing of my own (human) brain! (I have access to some images through my Wix subscription). I do not consent to the use of my content, images, or fiction to train generative AI models. Please contact me to discuss permission and compensation if you wish to use my content in this way.