WSIRN Ep 158: The life-changing magic of clearing your unread shelf

In episode 156, Myquillyn Smith inspired you to make our bookshelves beautiful… and today’s guest, Whitney Conard, is going to inspire you to cast a critical eye toward the shelf that holds your unread books. If you have a gigantic pile of books that you own but haven’t yet read looming somewhere in your house, Whitney totally gets you. We’re talking about her Instagram endeavor  #TheUnreadShelfProject2018, saying goodbye to reading shame, the right and not-quite-right times to read (for instance, in math class) and then, at Whitney’s invitation, I get to take a hard look at Whitney’s unread shelf and help her decide—from the bountiful selection of titles—what she should read next.

Let’s get to it!

What Should I Read Next #158: The life-changing magic of clearing your unread shelf with Whitney Conard

Follow Whitney Conard on Instagram @theunreadshelf, and join her movement yourself with #TheUnreadShelfProject2018.

2019 update! Whitney has a website for her Unread Shelf Project, visit her at


Books mentioned in this episode:
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If you’d like to support your local indie, check out And by all means, go grab one of these from your local library!

• The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, by Marie Kondo (AmazonBarnes and Noble)
Fitness Junkie, by Lucy Sykes and Jo Piazza (AmazonBarnes and Noble)
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C. S. Lewis (AmazonBarnes and Noble)
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo (AmazonBarnes and Noble)
The Likeness, by Tana French (AmazonBarnes and Noble)
• In the Woods, by Tana French (AmazonBarnes and Noble)
Since We Fell, by Dennis Lehane (AmazonBarnes and Noble)
• The 100-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson (AmazonBarnes and Noble)
• Author Louise Penny(start with Still Life: AmazonBarnes and Noble)
• Reading People: How Seeing the World through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything, by Anne Bogel (AmazonBarnes and Noble)
• The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield (AmazonBarnes and Noble)
• The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures, by Anne Fadiman (AmazonBarnes and Noble)
• I’ll Be Your Blue Sky, by Marisa de los Santos (AmazonBarnes and Noble)
• Belong to Me, by Marisa de los Santos (AmazonBarnes and Noble)

Also mentioned:

• #kcbookstagram on Instagram
• #theunreadbookproject on Instagram
• The Book Buddy app for iPhone
• WSIRN Ep 146: Refugee camps, civil war, and the triumph of a library card, feat. Chatti Phal-Brown


What do YOU think Whitney should read next? What’s your unread shelf number? Let us know in the comments!


Leave A Comment
  1. Diane says:

    So enjoy this podcast. Very relatable!
    I would like to recommend a book to Whitney.
    THE FAITHFUL SPY-John Hendrix.
    It is a graphic novel about Dietrich Bonhoeffer; not a small read. If you don’t know about Deitrich, there is racial justice running through this story that comes out very well. It is a YA and affordable 🙂

  2. Laura says:

    I just found Whitney’s Project recently and wish I had joined it earlier! Will it continue in 2019? My unread shelf is out of control, so it’s been my mission to tame it this coming year (and by out of control, I mean an order of magnitude beyond Whitney’s…). There are so many treasures that I keep finding as I pick up my own books, including The Thirteenth Tale! Our awesome library has a huge monthly sale that has seriously enabled my obsession. Thanks for a great episode – it’s also fun to hear from a fellow nurse and reader.

  3. Amy says:

    Whitney might enjoy Ginny Moon, a story told from the perspective of an Autistic girl in a loving foster home who’s world changes again when the foster mother becomes pregnant. If she liked the Language of Flowers, this may have appeal. I really enjoyed it. My unread book number is in the 50s, but I just purged before a move 6 months ago….

  4. Debi Morton says:

    I haven’t listened to the podcast yet, but I absolutely love the article about tsundoku. We moved into a new house about 6 weeks ago, and I wish I had a dollar for every time my husband has asked if I’m going to unpack the book boxes. He thinks I can do that with no thought whatsoever to where all these books, which I. Have. Never. Read. will go! Dream on, Dear Hubs! I promise you won’t trip over the boxes forever.

  5. Lauren says:

    I love this episode so much! I am following Whitney’s IG project because my unread books are out of control! I am so happy, though, that I JUST bought “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” at a library book sale for $1! Like a previous guest, I didn’t like the dust cover, so I took it off and now the spine is staring at me beautifully. What serendipity to get this book recommendation; I am moving it to the top of my TBR list now. I, too, was very moved by “Behind the Beautiful Forevers.” I am wondering if Whitney has read “There There” by Tommy Orange. I think Anne has recommended it here, and I suspect that, though fiction, Whitney might like it for the complex and multigenerational narrative of poverty and socioeconomic struggles.

  6. Total solidarity on Since We Fell! After the good reviews I was left thinking there was something wrong with me for not liking it! I chocked it up to “not my preferred genre,” but after I heard you discuss it I completely resonated with your analysis! Thanks! ?

  7. Glenda says:

    Hey Anne, I think the IG hashtag should be #theunreadshelfproject2018 . . . or #theunreadshelfproject . . . (or both!) =).

    Yes re: finishing library books before books I own because library books have a due date! I don’t have very many unread books on my shelf, but when I was in Book of the Month Club last year I quickly accrued a stack of those as unread books. For fiction, I tend to read those faster if I borrow them from the library in kindle format than if I purchase them.

  8. Sue B says:

    I also have a serious number of unread books that I fear I will never read. However, last year, I did pick up and read “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” by Helen Simonson. I LOVED IT!!! After reading this book, I checked out “The Summer Before the War” and it was also fantastic. Whitney, the reason I think you will like both of these titles is that there is a strong moral protagonist, who struggles of course, but the “good guys” win in the end. Her character development is delightful – I’m sorry she’s only written two books. Anyway, thanks for spurring me to do something about all of these unread books!

  9. Sue B says:

    Oh and I counted my unread books – 44 – not too bad but considering I’m trying to read about 6 library books, don’t know when I’ll ever get to them.

  10. I’ve been attempting to do #theunreadshelfproject2018, and it’s going somewhat well. I think I started with around 75 this year and have probably only added to that due to lots of library book sales. Whoops! But two of the ones I finally read (and loved) were Bel Canto and A Gentleman in Moscow, so that’s progress. Also, I’m glad to see one of Whitney’s favorite books is The Likeness. I’m making my way through her Dublin Murder Squad series, and The Likeness is my favorite so far!

  11. Lyndsey says:

    This was one of my favorite episodes! I think I enjoy buying books as much as I do reading them. ??‍♀️??‍♀️ I’m semi-afraid to count my unread books. I started today and only got one shelf of our downstairs bookshelf counted…42. ? And I have more on their way from thriftbooks and BOTM. Please, please, please tell me there will be another unread shelf project in 2019!? I need it!

  12. I used to have SO MANY unread books on my book shelves. But then I did a purging challenge a couple of years ago where you get rid of a number of things corresponding to the date, so 1 thing on the 1st, 2 on the 2nd, 3 on the 3rd, and so on and so forth. I ended up getting rid of over 100 books!! But I really went through my shelves and considered whether I was actually ever going to read the book. I asked myself if I was still excited to read the book and in many cases, I wasn’t and was instead getting books from the library. I also took a hard look at all my “read” books on my shelves and got rid of the books that no longer reflected my tastes. I think I got rid of more read books than unread books! It felt weird to get rid of so many books but it also felt good. I knew I was going to be moving in a couple of month so it was nice to lighten my load ahead of time! Now I would guess that I maybe own 20 unread books? So I still have quite a few but they are books that I really do think I will read.

  13. Sharon says:

    This podcast was pretty timely for me because one of my KonMari goals for 2018 was to eliminate any book on my “to be read” list that has been there for more than a year. I had nowhere near 700 books on my shelf — it was more like 35-40 — and I gave away about half, unread, right off the bat. I have read a few of the remaining 15 but feel pretty confident that I won’t get through them all before the end of the year.

    I am thinking that I will give myself through the end of January 2019, and any that I haven’t read by then, I will pass on to someone else who can enjoy them.

    Oh, and I am totally on board with not finishing any book that doesn’t catch my interest! I used to always finish books I started; not anymore! Life is too short, and my reading time is too limited.

  14. Anki says:

    So I’ve been following Whitney and the unread shelf project on Instagram, but I hadn’t actually counted my unread books until listening to this podcast episode. I’m not done yet, but I’m currently sitting at 968. So, uh…new high number for you?

    While I haven’t been actively participating in the project, I have made it a goal this year to read more books I own instead of always prioritizing library books (that deadline thing is real). Looking at that number of unread books, I really need to step up my game.

      • Anki says:

        Heh, I am glad I am in good company. My estimate is that when I finally finish scanning all my shelves I will be left with a number somewhere between 1000 and 1100. That 968 count is based off my easy to access electronic records, but I have print books that I have not yet catalogued that I will have to physically pull of the shelves.

        And then there’s rereading, particularly for series where I haven’t read the books in so long I have forgotten what happens. I haven’t even *touched* those yet….

        • I feel better about my 349 (rough count) unread books now! 😀 I was going to explain that I used to work at a bookstore, and we were given a weekly “book allowance” of credit towards used books that didn’t carry over week to week… It’s not counting any of my Kindle books, though! And given that I share a Kindle account with several family members and there are books *they’ve* bought that I know I want to read… Well. I think for next year I’m just going to try to bring the unread books down to 343! So many (other) books, so little time… At that rate it’ll take me a lifetime to bring it down to 0, but that’s okay, I don’t have to keep that rate.

  15. Sarah says:

    I’d encourage Whitney to not give up on Dennis Lehane quite yet, and check out his backlist, as she liked Tana French and expressed an appreciation for mystery and suspense. Mystic River is excellent, and the Kenzie and Gennaro series are pretty good “beach read” mysteries. I also really disliked Before We Fell (seemed like it was written by a committee!) but everyone makes the occasional mistakes! ?

  16. S says:

    I definitely want to incorporate more reading of my shelves, but struggle to follow through! I share the desire to be more deliberate about what I choose to read vs getting sidetracked by the latest book buzz. Next year I will be setting my reading challenge really low not because I want to reduce my reading but because I want to reduce the pressure I am starting to feel in my reading life (totally self imposed of course).
    I have a recommendation for Whitney – A Chance in the World by Steve Pemberton which is going to be turned into a movie. I am in the midst of listening to the audio version after hearing a recorded keynote speech he made about his journey from unwanted foster child to a successful executive and the moments and people who made small gestures that made big impacts in shaping his life. The audio honestly isn’t great – his reading of his story seems flat while he had such charisma and warmth in the keynote I listened to…but his story has my jaw on the floor. Based on your vocation, it sounds right up your alley – he has a lot of book references as one of his refuges in an abusing foster placement was losing himself in books a neighbor gave him. If the audio is not your cup of tea, try the physical book – I am far enough in to recommend even though I haven’t finished it myself yet.

  17. Jennifer Bubb says:

    I just downloaded book buddy to log the print and kindle books I own that I’ve not yet read. 200. ? More than I expected. I think the kindle books really added quite a bit. I’m a sucker for the daily emails I get with daily discounts (I’m looking at you, WSIRN!)

  18. Lyndsay says:

    I have a book recommendation for Whitney. “Ask Me Why I Hurt: The Kids Nobody Wants and the Doctor Who Heals Them” by Randy Christensen. The author is a doctor who starts a mobile clinic to serve the adolescent homeless population in Arizona. He is doing incredible work and while the stories can be heartbreaking, his mission is inspiring.
    Also, I usually love Dennis Lehane, but Since We Fell was a huge disappointment. Read Mystic River!!

  19. Ellen says:

    I feel like this show represents a whole new Podcast opportunity for you (because what else will you do with your time?)! I totally need someone to tell me where to start with my TBR bookshelf!

  20. Cathy says:

    I think Whitney would like A NECTAR IN A SIEVE by Kamala Markandaya. It’s a beautiful read, with a quietly strong female character, and it pairs well with Boo’s book.

  21. Kim says:

    I was trying to clear my TBR list for awhile. When I needed a new audiobook, I would go to the oldest books on my TBR. If I didn’t want to read it, off the list it went. I don’t generally buy many books. I have inherited quite a few books from others I should work better to read.

  22. Jamie says:

    This is the first episode EVER where I’ve read all the books that Anne recommended! I 100% agree with what she suggested. The Spirit Catches You is a book I read years a decade and it has stuck with me ever since. Great choice for your next read!

  23. Kim says:

    I just discovered your podcast and I am in heaven. HELP. Strange confession. Is it possible to be a reader who actually just discovered she doesn’t read at all???
    Quick explanation. As a little girl, when we would enter a local bookstore( for my older sister), I felt like I was in heaven. I loved the smell and feel of this safe place. That feeling is still present today, but I don’t have any memories of reading as a little girl. In my early 20s, I started business training and discovered self help books, then health books, and read hundreds of them. I can recall reading 1 or 2 Nicholas Sparks books. Now I am 40 and can recall 2 or 3 novels I have read in past 10 years that I really enjoyed. They took me to another world out of my own. I still have an obsession with self help books, but honestly they just sit, bc I’m not in the mood to be in my head at this stage in life of raising boys. Anyone else experience this or have any recommendations on where to start? Thanks

    • Kacie says:

      Kim — I think you’d enjoy Anne’s class (it is available in the MMD Bookclub) called “How to get more out of your reading life.”

      Perhaps also track books that you’re reading and want to read on a site like Goodreads. I think it is helpful to record my reading in this way and also make some sense out of patterns.

      ALSO? You are a reader. Self-help books = reading. It all counts!

  24. Kate Hall Mai says:

    Whitney has probably heard of a new book called Heartland, by Sara Smarsh. I Just read it and really liked it, and it seems like you would like it, too.

  25. Brenda says:

    In addition to When the Spirit Catches You I would add The Latehomecomer by Kao Kalia Yang. Story of Hmong family in Minnesota. Such a beautiful book and writing.

  26. Anne says:

    I am a fellow KC reader. Love the shout out to the JoCo Library, which is where I get most of my books! With 3 young kids, I am forever indebted to the guys & gals who drive the trucks around town & stock the hold shelves. I also have a KCMO library card, & they recently switched to Libby for their digital materials. It is a huge improvement from Overdrive!

  27. Tracy Sherbrook says:

    Anne – Thank you for a lovely podcast (which I just discovered). My favorite thing about it is your laugh, which you share freely with guests and listeners! Also, I’m thrilled to find that you include all the books mentioned here on your page; as it is rather dangerous to write them down while driving. Smirk. Thanks for spreading book love in a positive way!

  28. Andrea Miller says:

    Serendipity. I listened to this episode on the way to the library. I strolled by the Friends of the Library book sale shelf and found the following titles from your episode for $2 each.
    The Likeness by Tara French
    The Thirteen Tale by Diane Seterfield
    The 100-Year Old Man by Jonas Jonasson

    I bit creepy maybe. They don’t have tons of books on the Friends shelf here. But I’ll take it – I needed something to get me out of my Lord Peter Wimsey book hangover. Thanks for the recommends!

  29. Joy Hicks says:

    Love this podcast! But my TBR is getting larger! Have never read Jane Austen-need to read more of this type of book. Thanks for all the suggestions.

  30. Shawna says:

    So, I just found your podcast, and am binge-listening while I walk around in my home library…. looking at all the books on my shelves. I don’t re-read, so all of my books are on my TBR list…. I have a spreadsheet because I have so many (I go to many book sales where it’s $5, 10 or $20/bag (I can get a lot of books in a bag). My TBR list of physical books in my home is 2,250. (I have a problem!)

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