My Goodreads TBR Makes Me Face My Mortality

What's the word for "fear of dying whilst in the middle of a really good book"?

TBR books

Whenever my life flashes before my eyes—which happens more often than you might imagine—I have the same thought: what happens at the end of the book? I hope to live a great many more years, but whenever my time is up, I’m almost guaranteed to be reading something, because I’m always reading something.

I’ve known for quite a while now that I’m going to die one day, as much as I like to pretend otherwise. But the realization that with death comes not only the end of life, but also the end of reading, only hit me recently while looking at my TBR list.

Everyone has their own reservations about death and what comes after. But the fear of dying whilst in the middle of a really good book is probably unique to the hardcore readers among us. Reading has been the consistent through line of my entire 28 years of life. I don’t know who I am without a book constantly going in the background. So it’s highly likely that death, whenever it arrives, will lead to at least one permanent involuntary DNF. Unless, of course, there’s a library in the afterlife. Here’s to hoping, right?

I’m anxious by nature, prone to fits of despair about my inevitable demise on at least a bi-monthly basis. Even so, I think I’d have an easier time coming to terms with the fact that I won’t be around forever if there weren’t so many interesting books out there. Looking at my to-be-read list on Goodreads—the collection of books I hope to get to in the vagueness of someday—makes me break out into a mortality-induced cold sweat.

As it stands, my TBR is pretty manageable. According to the Read It Forward TBR Calculator, it will only take me three years to read all 217 books on the list, provided I continue to read at the same rate of about 70 books per year. I’ll be 30 years old by the time I finish my current TBR. Turning 30 is already a daunting prospect, an invisible line on the horizon where everything is supposed to change in unknowable ways. I’m happy I’ll have these 217 books to carry me through it, but seeing my reading quantified like that makes me nervous. There’s an infinite supply of books in this world, and a finite amount of time.

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Besides, my TBR is an ever-expanding work in progress. That relatively small number—217—is not indicative of all the books I hope to read in my (hopefully long) lifetime. It only represents the ones I’ve thought to add to my Goodreads account up to this point. That figure is constantly fluctuating; I keep Goodreads open in another tab while I scroll bookstagram hashtags and watch booktube videos so I can quickly update my TBR with anything that sounds even remotely interesting. Sure, I’ll probably de-prioritize some of those titles over time. But given the sheer volume of books out there, I have no doubt those will be quickly replaced with shiny new options.

Nothing reminds me of my personal fragility quite like my TBR pile. That teetering stack, real or imagined, that whispers no, you don’t have endless time to read us all. Every trip to the library or bookstore is yet another reminder that I want to read all of the books (okay, most of the books) and there will never be enough time. Reading is not only my favorite activity—it’s kind of my only activity, as far as hobbies go. No one knows what happens when we die. But not even the best-case scenarios put forth seem to include books. Any heaven that doesn’t resemble the world’s largest indie bookstore wouldn’t be heaven to me at all.

So, I try to focus on the positive. It’s a well-worn cliché to say that books are portals or tunnels or doorways to other worlds, but it’s the truth. By living as a reader, I’m already getting the chance to live hundreds of lives different from my own. Whenever I crack the spine on a new book, I enter a situation that I would never get the chance to experience in my actual physical reality. There’s a reason reading is said to build empathy—it puts you in the proverbial shoes of another person, be they fictional or historical. I’ve worked as a server as one of the top restaurants in New York City as Tess, the protagonist of Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler, and attended dance class alongside Tracee and the unnamed narrator of Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, to name just two examples.

My TBR pile forces me to focus in on the stories I’m most interested in reading and experiencing by proxy. But it also makes me grateful for the many ways I’m able to expand my understanding through other people’s words. If we only get one life, I intend to spend mine reading as often as possible.

Featured Illustration: Lucia Calfapietra

About Erin Mayer

ERIN MAYER is a writer and editor specializing in personal essays and musings about face creams that probably won’t cure her anxiety (but hey, it’s worth a shot). Her work has appeared on Bustle, Literary Hub, Man Repeller, Book Riot, and more. She spends her free time drafting tweets she never finishes and reading in front of the television. Find her on Instagram @erinkmayer.

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