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What did I learn from TBR20? (Spoiler: I don’t know)

Books are consumer goods, just like dresses or DVD box sets or surround sound systems or these things. Making them consumes non-renewable resources, no one ever bothers asking what conditions are like in the places where they’re made, and masses of fossil fuels are used to ship them around the world. And like fashion, books can be art or they can be disposable rubbish. I know you already know that, but sometimes we talk about them as though they’re sacred objects, and that buying a new book every week is a wonderful, worthy thing to do but buying a new frock every week is wasteful and reprehensible.

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Note: bookshops are excellent places full of fine people (image by snipergirl/flickr).

I own a lot of books. Many of them I’ve bought just for the consumerist rush. I picked them up in shops and stroked their covers, I wanted them so badly; I bought them all for my very own, then I took them home, put them on the shelf and never looked at them again. Now they’re just pieces of resentment, sitting there and making me feel guilty about all the reading I’ve failed to do.

So I signed up for #TBR20. The premise is, you read 20 books you already own before buying or borrowing a single other book. Now that I’ve finished, let’s see how I went.

On December 7 last year I started reading Cold Light by Frank Moorhouse. I had 19 other books lined up, ready to read (let’s call these ‘TBR-approved’). While I was reading Cold Light I also dipped into Etgar Keret’s short story collection, Suddenly a knock on the door (TBR-approved). I finished Cold Light and picked up Slow Water (TBR-approved). So far so good. The same day I surreptitiously slipped Jenny Valentish’s Cherry Bomb into my handbag (TBR-forbidden). I had an excuse: I planned to give it to a friend for Christmas and just needed to check she’d like it. It was only a little slip-up and from then until January 24, things went swimmingly: Wayne Macauley’s Demons, Patrick de Witt’s Ablutions, Ryan O’Neill’s Weight of a human heart, Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Falling, Toni Morrison’s A mercy, Brooke Davis’ Lost & Found, John A Scott’s N: all read (Ablutions abandoned partway through), all TBR-approved.

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Varuna: my undoing (image by Rebecca Geach)

Then I went to Varuna and it all went horribly wrong. Oh look, there’s Nicole Smith’s Sideshow on the living-room bookshelf, I’ve been wanting to read that. Oh and Margo Lanagan’s Black juice and Emma Donoghue’s Frog music and Charlotte Wood’s The children and Alison Croggon’s Navigatio oh and James Bradley’s The resurrectionist. I should read all of those. Plus I brought a few books on my Kindle in case I ran out of things to read (???), so I had to read Helen Macdonald’s H is for hawk. At least I didn’t actually accrue any more (hard copy) books. Oh, until I got back home and there was a kindly posted copy of AS Patric’s not-quite-yet-released Black Rock White City so I just had to read that…

February rolled around and I got back on that TBR bike. Best Australian short stories 2014 (TBR-approved), The book of strange new things (TBR-approved), Clade (TBR-approved except not really because I didn’t own it in December but I snuck it in to the list later because I needed to read it for a panel I was on) oh and then it all went haywire again. I had Andy Weir’s The Martian (TBR-forbidden) on my Kindle and well I just somehow started reading it (I stopped halfway through. Got bored). Had to borrow Picnic at Hanging Rock (TBR-forbidden) from the library to read for bookclub. Raced through Rose Michael’s The asking game (TBR-approved) then got waylaid by J Robert Lennon’s See you in paradise (TBR-forbidden) and followed up with an unexplained library borrowing binge: Trevor Shearston’s Game, Barbara Trapido’s Sex and Stravinsky and Jenny Offil’s Dept of Speculation, all TBR-forbidden.

I don’t want to bore you. It carried on in much the same way until last week when I finished my final TBR-approved book, Anna Tambour’s Crandolin. Between reading the first and last of my 20 approved books I read a total of 38 books. It wasn’t a total failure – almost all the forbidden books I read I read for a purpose (bookclub, had to discuss them on a panel, wanted to ask the author for a favour…) and all but one of them I either borrowed from the library or bought as e-books (so not totally undermining my secondary aim of not wasting resources by buying hard copy books I wasn’t going to read).

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Why does everyone think this book is awesome? (Image by Eric Peacock/Flickr)

I want to read books that change my brain and my heart and my life. I’m always searching for the amazing book that will make me see the world in a new way. I can’t resist the promise of the shiny, super-well-reviewed book. And then I’m usually sad (see right). So the main thing I wanted to know was, would I be just as happy reading the books I already had as I would reading the books I thought I wanted? Let’s look at the stats.

One-quarter of my TBR20 books were five-star reads. That’s pretty great. Another seven were four-stars. I abandoned three books.

Of my forbidden books, one was five stars, eight were four stars and two were abandoned. On the other hand, most of those TBR20s were books I had bought thinking they were books that would make all the difference. How did the random, acquired-who-knows-where, don’t-even-know-why-I-have-it books go?

  • EJ Howard’s Falling: pretty good, three stars, it’s no Cazalets.
  • Wayne Macauley’s Demons: pretty good, three stars, I like his short stories better.
  • Toni Morrison’s A mercy: four stars, but not as amazing as Beloved.
  • Annamarie Jagose’s Slow water: four stars, really pretty great but not life-changing.
  • Etgar Keret’s Suddenly a knock on the door: five stars, totally unexpected, made me so happy.

Three of the four other five-star, life changing books – Cold Light, Life & Fate, N – were books I had bought assuming they would be amazing. And they were.

So what did I learn from this exercise? Finding a brilliant book can happen from a superb recommendation or totally by chance. You may as well stick to second-hand books and the library because there’s a good chance you’ll find what you’re looking for there. And maybe every now and then, when you get a recommendation you just can’t resist, get down to the book shop.

Disclaimer You should totally buy loads of books at your local bookshop at least once a week and maybe more often than that. Bookshops are great. So are books. Authors and booksellers make money from you buying books, and authors and booksellers have been scientifically proven to be utterly excellent people. Buy books.


19 thoughts on “What did I learn from TBR20? (Spoiler: I don’t know)

  1. LOL You have left out a really important reason for buying books, and that is to support their authors so that feel encouraged to write another one. Buying a book from an author I like is not a reward or because I like her as a person, it’s intended to make that author get cracking on the next book. Sales do that, I hope.
    I have hundreds of books on my TBR in my own personal architect-designed home library in my small 2-bedroom house and I am utterly unrepentant about it. I don’t buy expensive shoes or handbags or other shiny new things, so book-buying is my own ‘vice’ and I steadily work my way through my books, always confident that there are plenty there to last into my old age if eBooks or other horrible techno-replacements win the day. But I also read new ones that publishers send me if I like the sound of them because I like bragging about how good Australian writing is on my blog. And I read things that catch my eye at the library too – who cares where they come from, there are no forbidden books IMO only boring ones which should be jettisoned ASAP.
    I do think that there are far too many books published these days and some of them are not worth the paper they are printed on. So I think that a responsible book-buyer owes it to herself to choose wisely, using recommendations from trusted sources and her own personal experience of reading. That’s what I do, and it makes me happy!
    Happy reading to you too:)

    1. I love this Lisa, and I’m very jealous of your architect-designed library and your relaxed attitude to your massive to-read list. Sometimes I tell myself ‘I’m buying this for when I move to Tasmania’ (at an unspecified date in the future) as though there might not be books in Tasmania. It’s my excuse when I buy a book I’ve read but don’t own and might want to read again, or when I buy a classic book I haven’t yet read – these are the books I imagine reading in my retirement, when the urge to be on top of the latest new thing has passed.

      1. It’s a weird thing, but what happened was that we got an architect in to tell us whether or not we could move a wall or two without the house falling down, and he went away and then came back with two plans, one for what we said we wanted, and the other for what he thought we needed. It was so obvious to him that I needed a room for all my books and yet I never thought of it. And yet I’d read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of Her Own – how did I never think of it myself? After all these years of feminism, I thought it was ok for The Spouse to have an office, but I needed a man to tell me I needed a room of my own for my needs? #GoFigure. It’s easy to do instead of a 3rd bedroom, it’s just shelves after all and a desk, and I have the added touch of soundproofing which is just a fancy thingamajig on the door to seal it properly.

      2. I’ve only just managed to acquire a writing room of my own, and it’s actually the spare bedroom so I have to give it up when there are guests. And yep, my husband has a study/workroom/dressing room/music room that’s all his. It’s weird, isn’t it? When we imaginarily move to Tasmania I’ll not only have my own writing room, but also a dedicated reading and listening room, for books and records. It will have a chaise longue.

  2. I agree – yes, all of it, especially the disclaimer! What I want to know is: what’s your formula/decision making process for abandoning a book, because life’s too short, but I have OCD. Xx

    1. My formula is when I get bored or too angry, I stop. Often I get bored when I feel like the book is conceptually based and I get the concept and the author is just going to keep executing the same concept over and over in different ways. ‘The Martian’ felt like that to me (lost astronaut is plucky and resourceful, gets into scrape, gets out of scrape) and also ‘On a winter’s night a traveller’, but I finished that because I thought it was doing me some kind of intellectual good. I had to stop reading ‘Ablutions’ because it was making me feel physically ill and I just wasn’t up for that at the time – another day I might have loved it. Lisa’s right though: now I read more books that are ‘the next big thing’ I realise how many boring rubbish books there are.

  3. I like your scientific approach to this analysis! I get most of my books from the library because I find even highly-recommended books can disappoint me and i HATE spending $30 on a book only to abandon it. However, if I’m reading a library book that is blowing my mind and I’m overwhelmed by the urge to underline the phrases that resonate with me deeply or just astound me with their turn of phrase, THEN I’ll go and buy it. And books are my first choice as gifts, so I’m still supporting my fantastic local book shops.

    1. It’s some pretty half-arsed science, but I can’t resist an experiment now and then. Think yourself lucky there were no pie charts. Do you have any opinions on the merit for writers of sales vs library borrowings? I haven’t got my first library paycheque yet so I’m not sure how they stack up. And I guess future publishers never get to look at your library borrowing stats…

      1. From memory, for every copy of any of my books that is held by a public or educational library, I get around $1 per year. So whereas a royalty payment on a sale is a one-off payment, public lending rights are paid yearly. So as long as your books keep being borrowed and are retained by the various libraries, you keep being paid. Which is pretty rad! It is not a fortune, but it might buy you a fancy dinner out once a year and any money you can make as a writer is a bonus, i reckon!

      2. Just to clarify what Annabel says: (in educational libraries) I’m pretty sure it’s not how many times the book is borrowed, it’s whether it’s in the catalogue. The librarian gets a bit of software which scans the catalogue and sends the file to ELR. (I think this is how it works because I’ve done it myself in my own school library; from what I could see of the file it didn’t record how many times the book was borrowed).
        Of course if nobody borrows your book the library will eventually cull it, and some are more ruthless than others.

      3. Re library borrowings v sales: I can only speak for educational libraries, but more than 10 years after I sold the last of the 2nd print run of my books I’m still collecting nice-to-get ELR (same as PLR only in educational institutions). The royalties on the 2nd print run were pitiful, my book was sold on to a new publisher and I had no say in it, I got a take-it-or-leave it letter that told me how little it was going to be. I can’t remember exactly how much that was … the first run was 95 cents per book and I think the 2nd was less than a third of that. Is this what happens when a book is eventually remaindered? I don’t know.
        The other thing you should go for, even if you think no one will ever photocopy your book, is CAL, which pays for any copying that’s done in educational institutions. You never know, someone teaching a creative writing class might copy a few pages of your book for some reason, and if that’s the week that institution is being surveyed, you will get paid for it. It’s a bit of a lottery because they survey at random, but it doesn’t cost anything to register with them.

      4. …which is why you should do a tour of Australia once every few years, borrowing your book from libraries (though the economics might not really stack up…) Lisa, I think I signed up with CAL too.

  4. Lisa I love that story about how your library came to be. And yes, when I said ‘if your book continues to be borrowed’ i meant exactly that: if your book isn’t being borrowed the library will get rid of it. Jane, I love the idea of touring the country just to borrow your own book from libraries! (Idea for a story?)

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