Death by TBR

Readers die of many causes, no doubt – I speak of disease, old age, car accidents and the like – but I am convinced that for most of them, the heart-stopper comes by way of a tragic and overwhelming realization: the realization that no matter how long you live, you’ll never be able to read everything you want to read.


The majority of the reader’s life is spent in denial of this fact. In practice, if not in theory, he fancies himself immortal. He stays up late to read, and rises early to do the same. He reads during meals, during work, during play. He forges ahead, page after page after page, an insatiable devourer of literature. He swallows worlds, digests characters, savors language, gets drunk on storytelling. “For surely,” he reasons, “if I read hard enough, well enough, fast enough, surely then will I conquer my reading pile.”

But he is deceived, like the man who thinks he can empty the ocean with a spoon, if only he expends enough time and effort. He will begin to realize this as he grows older, but he will fight it. More books, more lists, more trips to the library – a mad struggle against the inevitable.

But it is a struggle that can only go on for so long, and at last, the truth will hit him – hard, like a semi-truck barreling forward on I-90. In that moment, he will come face-to-face with his own mortality and will tremble before it, crying, “One page more, let me read but one page more!”

And then he will give up the ghost. His relatives will search for a last will and testament, but to no avail. He could never stop reading long enough to write one.

So I leave you with this thought from Joe Queenan:

A friend once told me that the real message Bram Stoker sought to convey in Dracula is that a human being needs to live hundreds and hundreds of years to get all his reading done; that Count Dracula, basically nothing more than a misunderstood bookworm, was draining blood from the necks of 10,000 hapless virgins not because he was the apotheosis of pure evil but because it was the only way he could live long enough to polish off his extensive reading list. But I have no way of knowing if this is true, as I have not yet found time to read Dracula.

14 thoughts on “Death by TBR”

  1. Fie fie, come come my friend, we must have hope, let us not succumb to these dire prophecies, consider that life spans are expanding, 1 in ten are expected to live till 95, especially women, which means I at least will finish my reading list. :) But look at this way, true as mortals the petty distractions of life may keep us from completing our list, but with death at last we shall have time, and consider then the innumerable books available to us which before were out of print or lost in the fires of barbarians…ah….

    Of course, the truth is that this post has a fundamental flaw in its assumption of the purpose of reading. :)

    1. “…consider that life spans are expanding, 1 in ten are expected to live till 95, especially women, which means I at least will finish my reading list.”

      Deluded art thou, O Amy, and terrible will be the day of thine understanding… ;)

      1. Pessimist!! I never specified what version of the reading list I’ll finish. I’m sure I’ll finish my current reading list, as far as future lists, well, I’m having a good morning, let’s not ruin it by discussing future reading lists. ;)

  2. You have diagnosed my ill! And, sad to say, I fear the progress of the disease may be far advanced in me. I can no longer visit bookstores and libraries without being thrown into great melancholy, and, in spite of being a mere 36 years of age, and therefore not reasonably called middle-aged yet, I find myself not finishing books, because they’re not quite good enough, and, well, I only have so much time.

  3. Great post. I used to feel overwhelmed by all the books I hadn’t read yet. Now that I’m over fifty, I am much more relaxed. I still read a lot, but I never finish a book I hate no matter how many lists it’s on as “essential reading”. And I have a much better understanding of my own tastes so I don’t waste time with books that everybody else is reading if they don’t appeal to me. No longer a slave to my TBR lists, I’m having much more fun and I’m reading some really great stuff.

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