The Crime Readers' Association

Quentin Bates – Books

27th June 2014

The curse of the TBR pile


It’s an affliction, but not necessarily a bad one. There are others that are so much worse.

They’re everywhere, sneaking into corners and taking up residence, lying quietly and unnoticed behind doors and under beds, making shelves creak during the night.

There are people who don’t have books. It’s true, I’ve been inside houses occasionally where there isn’t a shred of printed matter to be seen other than a Chinese takeaway menu, a glossy gossip mag or the ragged remnants of a freesheet lining the floor of the budgie’s cage. These people can be recognised by the blank smile, the dead eyes and the pallor that comes of spending hours in front of the TV.

I’m not one of them. I’ll put up my hand and admit happily that books are an essential part of life and I couldn’t imagine an existence without a book within easy reach. The idea of not being able to read when presented with the occasional empty moment is painful. A journey of any length used to mean three books, minimum; one to read, another to read when the first one’s finished and a spare in case the second book turned out not to hit the spot. These days it’s two books and a Kindle, but that’s another story.

The house I live in is full of books. They’re everywhere; on shelves and in piles here and there. There are boxes in the attic and the To-Be-Read pile has spread to the shed and even to the car. I’ll freely admit that I acquire books faster than I can read them, both new and from second-hand shops and car boot sales.

A 1933 guide to British trees? A quid? I’ll have that. A tattered 1951 Simenon? A fiver? Well, all right. An account of the Mesopotamia campaign in the air by ‘Tailspin’ published privately in 1923? Why not? I’ll give it a good home. You get the picture. Walking past a bookshop without having a quick look is almost palpably painful, especially somewhere with dark shelves at the back loaded with the contents of a former public library of the kind that are being shamefully closed down across modern Britain.

A few years ago, under pressure from the management, I got rid of a lot of books, carting a dozen boxes of unwanted books to the nearest charity shop. It wasn’t easy to see much difference afterwards. A few shelves looked a little on the light side, and admittedly I did get rid of some of the stuff that nobody was ever going to read. But as I tend to browse the same shops that took those books, I almost certainly ended up buying a few of them back and it wasn’t long before those thin shelves had got back to their normal plump selves.

It should be possible for a boffin with a slide rule to calculate precisely the average book size and volume, the rate of acquisition and from that to calculate the exact date when I’ll have to move out and sleep in the greenhouse (as the shed will also be full by then). That date will also be skewed by the presence of the boxes containing a small library owned by my daughter, who is currently studying abroad, and who may one day return to claim her books. On the other hand, she suffers from the same affliction and may decide to leave them and replace them with others.

Then there’s the Kindle. It was a present and I wasn’t sure I was going to like it. In fact, I like it a lot more than I had expected. I’m not reading any fewer dead tree books, and the Kindle complements ‘real’ books rather than replacing them. I use it in times and places where I would normally pick up a newspaper, and it has helped me discover stuff that I might not otherwise have come across.

The Kindle hasn’t solved the problem of the To-Be-Read pile. Instead, it’s becoming a To-Be-Read pile on its own account, in addition to the TBR piles in the bedroom, living room, kitchen and shed, plus the handful of books in the car that are dangerously close to metamorphosing into a fledgling TBR pile in their own right. Not that I see the TBR problem as a problem; to take one of those trite management aphorisms, I see it more as an opportunity. To some people it may be a house full of books, to me it’s a lot of old friends and plenty of choice.


Quentin Bates escaped English suburbia at the end of the 1970s for a gap year in Iceland that gradually turned into a gap decade, going largely native in the north of Iceland for much of that time and acquiring a new language, a family and an unexpected profession at the same time. He returned to England in 1990, Icelandic family in tow, and has been here ever since.
After a good few years at sea and having trained as a ship’s officer, the shift into writing for a living began, through a series of coincidences, as a journalist for a marine trade magazine. Fiction was something he had always seen as a complete mug’s game, so of course had to give it a try. The advice was to write about what you know, so Iceland was the ideal backdrop.
The first novel (Frozen Out) was published in 2011 in Britain and US, and there are three more since then, as well as translations into German, Dutch, Finnish and Polish. Find out more 

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