Getting Real about My “Set Aside Temporarily” Shelf

Mid-November, and I’ve been thinking about how many of the books I currently have on the go I will be able to finish before the end of the year – not to mention whether I can squeeze in any more 2019 releases, or get a jump on early 2020 releases (ha!).

In the back of my mind, however, is some mild, self-induced anxiety. You see, the other year I started an exclusive Goodreads shelf (i.e., one that doesn’t fall into one of the three standard categories, “Read,” “Currently Reading” or “Want to Read”) called “Set Aside Temporarily,” on which I place a book I have put on hiatus for whatever reason, whether I’d read a handful of pages or 200. Maybe a few library holds came in that I needed to finish before a strict due date, or I took on a last-minute review assignment and needed to focus on that book instead.

Usually, though, it’s just a case of having started too many books at once. I’m addicted to finishing books, but also to starting them – often a fresh stack of four or five in one sitting, to add to my 10 or more already on the go. I always used to say that I read 10‒15 books at a time, but in the latter half of this year that has crept up to 20‒25. Sometimes I can manage it; other times it feels like too much, and a few books from the stack fall by the wayside and get stuck with that polite label of “set aside.” It doesn’t necessarily mean that I wasn’t enjoying them, just that they were less compelling than some other reads.

Some of my “set aside” reads, stacked up next to my reading armchair.

So as I contemplated this virtual shelf, which as of the 12th had 33 titles on it, I figured I have the following alternatives for each book: pick it back up immediately and finish it as soon as possible, ideally this year (especially if it’s a 2019 release, so it can be in the running for my Best Of lists); regretfully mark it as a DNF; put it back on the shelf, with or without a place marker, to read some other time; skim to the end if I wasn’t getting on with it particularly well yet want to know what happens; or keep it in limbo for now and maybe read it in 2020.

I told myself it was decision time on all of these. Here’s how it played out:

(* = 2019 release)


Currently reading:

  • Let’s Hope for the Best by Carolina Setterwall*
  • Savage Pilgrims: On the Road to Santa Fe by Henry Shukman


To resume soon:

  • The Easternmost House by Juliet Blaxland* (as soon as my library hold comes in)
  • Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner*
  • The Spirit of Christmas: Stories, Poems, Essays by G.K. Chesterton
  • The River Capture by Mary Costello*
  • The Scar by Mary Cregan*
  • The Envoy from Mirror City by Janet Frame
  • Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country by Pam Houston*
  • Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage by Madeleine L’Engle
  • The Way through the Woods: Of Mushrooms and Mourning by Long Litt Woon*
  • Kinds of Love by May Sarton
  • All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf by Katharine Smyth*
  • Dancing with Bees by Brigit Strawbridge Howard*
  • A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas (a re-read)
  • The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall*



  • The Manticore by Robertson Davies – A different perspective isn’t enough to keep me interested in a recounting of the events from Fifth Business.
  • The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman (even though I’d read 250 pages of the danged thing) – Painstaking but worthy historical fiction.
  • Then She Found Me by Elinor Lipman – The first 100 or so pages were pleasant reading during a beer festival, but I had no impetus to pick it up afterwards.
  • A Door in the Earth by Amy Waldman* – The first 12% didn’t grab me. Never say never, but I don’t plan on picking it back up soon. Sad, as this was one of my most anticipated releases of the year.
  • The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf – I really tried. It was the third Woolf novel I’d picked up (and put down) in quick succession this year. She’s just such hard work.


Returned to the shelf for another time:

  • Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett
  • Emerald City by Jennifer Egan
  • The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr
  • Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee
  • Wait Till I Tell You by Candia McWilliam
  • The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton
  • Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle by Dervla Murphy
  • A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies by John Murray
  • Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler


To skim:

  • The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom* – Although very well written, this is dense with family detail, more than I really need.


Still set aside:

  • In the Springtime of the Year by Susan Hill – to finish off next spring!
  • Bodies in Motion and at Rest: On Metaphor and Mortality by Thomas Lynch (a university library book) – It’s in discrete essays so can be picked up and put down at will.


Some general observations: Recently I’ve lacked staying power with short story collections. However, I find it’s not usually a problem to read a few stories (or essays) and then return to a collection some months later. Memoirs, travel books and quiet fiction can also withstand an interruption. If I’ve put aside a plotty or style-heavy novel, however, that’s a bad sign that I will probably end up DNFing it.


Do you have a physical or virtual shelf of books that are partly read and languishing? How have you tackled it in the past?

32 responses

  1. I tend to deliberate long and hard before giving up but once I’ve taken that step I rarely go back to a book. I’m sorry you were disappointed in the Waldman I’ve been looking forward to that having enjoyed The Submission. How are you getting on with Let’s Hope for the Best which is on my list, although I can’t remember why? I read Savage Pilgrims after visitng New Mexico and loved it, possibly because it took me back there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha! I was going to pass along my copy of Savage Pilgrims to you — good to know that you are already familiar with it. I am particularly enjoying the author’s D.H. Lawrence tourism (though rather disturbed by the incident of him having sex with a random Italian woman he’d just met on a bench in the DHL Taos ranch grounds!).

      Let’s Hope for the Best has been a slow one for me. It’s autofiction very much in the same vein as In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist — it’s about the sudden death of her partner, reliving their life together and rebuilding a life with her young child afterwards. I think it could stand to be 100+ pages shorter, but it is very affecting.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ah, yes – now I remember why I wanted to read it although it sounds wrenching.

        That’s such a kind thought! Thank you. The sex on a bench incident has mercifully slipped from my memory! I loved the New Mexican landscape btu the Taos/Santa Fe New Age vibe was a little hard to take.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I read Cider with Rosie many years ago, and recall it being a delightful book. I keep meaning to tackle Virginia W and not doing so – hmm – after your remarks, I may just let this one slide.
    I don’t mean to nit pick but what is the difference between Put Aside and TBR ? just asking.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Set Aside” means it is partway read and I plan to go back to it. (I used to call this “on hold,” but thought that could be confusing as it sounds like I have a hold on it at the library.) TBR means I will start from scratch some other time.

      I need to get back into Cider with Rosie, maybe over Christmas — I think it will be a cheerful read for that time of year.

      I loved To the Lighthouse when I read it in college, and I have also enjoyed Orlando, as well as Flush and On Being Ill (those two are very short, and different from her usual fare). But this year I gave up on The Years, The Waves, AND The Voyage Out.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I used to be much more persistent with books that didn’t immediately grab me. And I’m a one-at-a-time sort of person. But currently I have four on the go, which is a bad sign: Setterfield’s Once Upon a River, which I am the only person on the planet not to be enjoying; Packham’s Fingers in the Sparkle Jar, which is illuminating as an insight into Asperger’s but otherwise not my thing:Jamie’s Among Muslims, which lends itself to being picked up and put down; and Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything, which is the one I’m most readily seeing through to the end. None of your books is currently on my list, though I think it was you who got me on to Kathleen Jamie – thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s one of just a few Jamie books I haven’t read. I’ll be intrigued to see what her straight travel writing is like (there are a few travel essays in her other collections, though). I gave up on the Levy! After just 20 pages or so. The Setterfield was an interesting one for me in that I tried it early this year and only got 16 pages in; I set it aside all the way until October, when I picked it back up and got sufficiently engrossed to finish it and give it 3.5 stars. So for me it was a question of timing. I would concede that it’s fairly slow and probably overlong, though.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The Jamie book is interesting, but a straightforward narrative, We discuss the Setterfield in Book Group on Wednesday. I know it’s gone down well with many, so look forward to the discussion, as I’m only armed with 62 pages of reading!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Sorry to hear that you didn’t get on with the Waldman – this is also an anticipated read for me. I can’t read more than 3-4 books at the time, but occasionally a half-finished book languishes on my Kindle for ages – usually non-fiction, which I find it easier to read over a long period of time. I currently have Hillary Clinton’s What Happened sitting about.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve been meaning to carry on with Clinton’s two other memoirs after reading her first one early this year. I agree that nonfiction lends itself much better to slow or intermittent reading.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s incredibly long-winded but also v easy to read, so I’ll probably finish it at some point!


    2. Sounds like ghostwriter + reluctant editor made for a bad combination there 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I had wondered about your ‘set-aside’ label on Goodreads! I either plough through or DNF but I only ever have three or four books on the go – don’t know how you do 20!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I keep lots of stacks around my reading armchair, alternating fiction and nonfiction and in order by priority, and have various reading sessions per day — not always at the same times, but to fit around my work and other commitments. Then I’ll usually have one Kindle book on the go for lunchtimes. I used to stick to a much more sensible 10-15 😉


  6. Like Kate I can’t imagine how you can have so many on the go at any one time. I struggle with 2.
    I don’t have an official set aside shelf in Goodreads and until reading your post I hadn’t given any thought to whether I have “yet to be finished’ books. But looking at my shelves I see I have about 6 of them – all non-fiction. Decision time coming up for me too – I started reading one of them 3 years ago but the bookmark shows me I read only one chapter.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nonfiction is at least easier to go back to in that you don’t have to worry about whether you’ve forgotten the plot and characters (for the most part). This summer I realized I had three early 2018 reads that were STILL hanging about and finally forced myself to deal with them: 2 DNFs (the novels) and a skim (a biography/travelogue).


  7. I can only read one book at a time, so I found this fascinating. My TBR list is just crazy though. My husband once worked out roughly how many decades it would take to get through it (bearing in mind it keeps expanding).
    I blame you of course (and Paul) for the TBR mountain!
    How about doing a post on tackling an out of control TBR list. I know I need to cull, but it’s tough. I once tried to delete any with very poor ratings, but we all love books others hate (and vice versa) so I didn’t get far!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I did one post on that subject a couple years ago ( … but haven’t done very well at further culling since then. My Goodreads TBR stands at 6160! Though that is compared to the 7190 I started with before that culling post, so I guess it worked somewhat.


  8. The only Virginia Woolf I’ve read is To the Lighthouse and ‘hard work’ is exactly how I would describe it. I love the idea of loving her books but the thought of picking another one up seems almost torturous.

    I usually read 5-7 books at a time and occasionally some languish on my currently reading shelf for months on end until I move them to ‘on hold.’ The only one I’ve done that to this year is Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff; I read 3 chapters and it seemed promising but I was not in the right headspace for dense historical nonfiction. Hopefully I’ll give it another try in 2020.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, you have an ‘on hold’ shelf as well, so you know just what I mean!

      One of these set aside titles that I hope to get back to (All the Lives We Ever Lived by Katharine Smyth) is basically a bibliomemoir about To the Lighthouse, so I hope it will inspire me to (re)read some Woolf soon.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I’m quite good at either giving up or keeping going, however I have a Qu’ran on my bedside table that I’ve read c. 4 pages of, then got put off by how long everything is, but I feel guilty esp because a lovely friend who I’m no longer in touch with gave it to me and I always say at those stalls giving them away, “Oh, no, I already have one, thank you” but what am I doing about reading it? Nothing. I read the Bible all the way through as a teenager but this feels too much.


    1. PS I just remembered I was going to read it so I could read “The Satanic Verses” and understand it. But I’ve gone off Rushdie now anyway …


      1. Ah, I’ve only ever read Midnight’s Children and it was SUCH a slog for me; ultimately not worth it. I haven’t been tempted to try Rushdie since. It was admirable of you to be willing to give the Qu’ran a go after reading the Bible. Whenever I have come across passages from the Qu’ran in history books or the like, I have been intrigued by the similarities and differences to the Bible, but never enough to pick up a copy for myself.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. I don’t know how you do it! If I have more than two on the go at any time, and they have to be totally different to each other, I get stuck. So I tend to be strictly serially monogamous as far as reading goes. I’m getting better at giving up, but still hate doing it. I seem to remember that Dovekeepers was a rare Hoffman fail for me too, I generally love her books, but aside from the Robertson Davies which I have read but totally forgotten, I’m not familiar with any of the others in your huge pile.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Hoffman has lovely writing … but that wasn’t enough to keep me going for 500 pages!

      I expect I’ll skip this middle volume of the Davies trilogy and come back to World of Wonders another time.


  11. Good for you for tackling this stack. I don’t have a set-aside shelf… either I start it and finish, start it and decide I don’t want to finish, or send it back and keep it as “Want-to-Read” on my Goodreads TBR. If it’s a book I own and I don’t want to finish, I give it away. I think this is much easier to do since I only read 2-3 books at a time.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s good to be decisive in that way!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. I’m like Laila. Because I only read one or two books at a time, I usually either read them or DNF them. I don’t usually go back, but I’m sure there have been a couple of exceptions. It’s so rare, though, that I can’t think what they are!
    Too bad about The Manticore! I haven’t read that one yet.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My ‘set aside’ shelf is a bad habit that I hope to break by early next year!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Hmmm, I do have some books on my shelf that I consider “stuck”. Ones that I’ve left unfinished over the years but, for a variety of reasons, am still committed to reading (sometimes a gift, sometimes a recommendation, sometimes just being stubborn!). Over the past five years or so, I’ve managed to finish one or two each year (they’re usually quite lengthy chunky reads), like Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany and Elizabeth Arthur’s Antarctic Navigation and, this year, Charles Palliser’s The Quincunx. Quite often they turn out to be favourites of mine and that’s an extra incentive. I think I remember that you are fond of the Owen Meany story?

    And I think it was working on finishing these that made me get really serious about limiting my review copies, because I had such a sense of behind-ness. Which still exists, of course, as you know well, when you are trying to remain uptodate with the publishing world (somewhat, anyhow). But at least I’m not quite so behind with OLD books as well as with new ones? Oh, well, it doesn’t SOUND much better, does it. Not really. But it does feel much better. And being picky right from the start does reduce the overall accumulation (but my GR list is slightly more out of control than yours – so I’m surely not saying I’ve got any answers!).

    It’s been awhile since you’ve posted this (I’m catching up online after a busy reading November): have you had any new thoughts/ideas about your dilemma?


    1. How interesting that some of your languishing / stuck books have ended up being standouts — I think I recall Antarctic Navigation was your highlight of last year, even? Whereas for me, if I take many, many months or even years over a book, that means it wasn’t engaging enough to ever stop being a struggle. One recent exception I can think of is The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen, which took me ages to read in tiny installments. However, because it was such a philosophical book and in short, few-page diary entries, that seemed to work. If it’s a book with a narrative, though, stretching it out for ages tends to be a bad thing for my concentration and ultimate enjoyment.

      I’m still pondering a cutback on review copies. I’ve been alarmed by the number of 2019 releases added to my TBR: despite the ones I’ve already gotten through, there are still 388 remaining. That’s an unsustainable number to be contemplating by the end of a year. And 88 already on my radar for next year. I feel like I need to be a lot more choosy and only, perhaps at the very end of a year, add the books that I have continued to hear exceptional things about from trusted friends and reviewers — not just rush to add every possibly interesting-sounding book to the TBR right away. The fewer books I request, the fewer times I should find myself having to push through to the end of a 3-star or below book that wasn’t truly worth my time. And the more time I can devote to my own shelves and the books I’ve meant to read for years but never gotten to because my head was turned by all the shiny new releases.

      Most likely, I will be loose with these restrictions. If I happen to see a proof being offered on Twitter that looks unmissable, or I hear about a book that sounds perfect for me and is on NetGalley, I won’t pass up the opportunity. But I will try not to send many, or any, review copy requests beyond the few I’ve already sent for early 2020 material. I get good pre-release access to books through Kirkus (nonfiction) and BookBrowse (fiction), and to recent UK releases through the TLS and my public library, so I really shouldn’t ‘need’ anything more.

      (And yes, Owen Meany is my favourite Irving, followed by Garp and Cider House Rules. All would be worth a reread.)


  14. […] books of under 200 pages that have ended up on my “Set Aside Temporarily” shelf. I swore after last year that I would break myself of the bad habit of letting books linger like this, but it has continued […]


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