By Andy Miller
About ten years ago, I had a bright idea. It involved reading a baker’s dozen of books I had always meant to read but had never got round to: The Master and Margarita, Middlemarch, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and ten more. I bought the books and my wife Tina and I wrote out a list which we christened, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, ‘the List of Betterment’. Looking at it, it dawned on me that nearly all the books on this list were books that I had, at one time or another, lied about having read, a realisation which made me laugh and feel only mildly guilty. When I mentioned it to friends, I noticed most of them laughed too. That’s interesting, I thought, lying about books is a thing people do – some of them anyway. As I worked my way through the books, most of which were novels, I became aware that the process was making a profound impression on me. The individual books were important – a few were wonderful – but it was the act of reading itself, the cumulative effect of engaging with one great book after another, which had roused something within me. About half way through Book 11, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, I became certain that I wanted and needed to write about this rediscovery of the magic of reading and that my third book would be about this very thing. And here my troubles began.
Building on my initial bright idea, I had decided to expand the List of Betterment from thirteen books to fifty, to encompass some of the biggest and most challenging titles in the canon: Don Quixote, One Hundred Years of Solitude, War and Peace and so on. I reckoned The Year of Reading Dangerously would take about two years to complete: a year for the actual reading and then another year to write the thing, with perhaps an additional six months to rewrite and edit, the fun bit – actually sitting there accumulating enough words and choosing all the right ones is hard work. In the end that estimate was out by about five years; the book took seven long years to finish. The problem with a bright idea is it can easily vanish behind a cloud. Before you know it the wind gets up and it starts to rain. Suddenly you’re stuck outdoors without a coat or an umbrella and you begin to wonder why you left the house in the first place when, both figuratively and literally, you could have been tucked up in bed reading a good book. For seven years.
The problem was never the reading; that did indeed take only a year. In fact, because the writing turned into such a drawn-out affair, under the guise of research I had time to read many of the books twice (not Don Quixote though, once was sufficient). I realised quite early on that I did not want to write a straightforward book-by-book summary, partly because bona fide literary critics had done it many times before and better, but also because I wanted to write about reading, rather than individual books – a crucial distinction and one that made the task more testing. I felt strongly that the laugh of recognition that usually occurred when I told someone I was currently reading books I had lied about reading was the key to it all. So actually the book had to be about not reading as much as reading, about how we feel about books and reading in the real world, the world we all live in, rather than the classroom or the pages of the TLS. Because it was a book about reading by a reader, author, editor and former seller of books, there would inevitably also be a strong element of memoir. And it made sense to utilise all the paraphernalia of bibliography – letters, footnotes, appendices, quotations from other writers, a reading group guide, a foreword, an afterword and everything in-between. But it also needed to tell the reader a story, the true story of the dramatic effect that the year had had on my life, and my family’s, in a way that would keep him or her turning the pages, quite a challenge when its ‘plot’ involved little more than a middle-aged commuter sitting on a train turning the pages of other, greater books. It needed to homage books about reading and books I loved: U&I by Nicholson Baker, Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Jonathan Coe’s biography of B.S. Johnson, Like a Fiery Elephant, volumes that both celebrated the splendour of books and chafed at their limitations. Finally, there needed to be jokes. More than anything, I wanted this book to be funny.
It was stupidly ambitious. About now is when it really started to chuck it down.
In reality, I was massively over-prepared. The problem was never the books; it was trying to puzzle out which ones to leave out. Partly this was a practical consideration. If I wrote about every single one at length, The Year of Reading Dangerously would come in at approximately a million words. (A three hundred page book is usually about 80 to 90,000 words in length.) But it was also a question of thinking about which books characterised a particular type of reading experience – the book you can’t put down, the book you’re bored by, the book you just can’t connect with, the book that seems to speak to you and only you, and so on. I had encountered all these types of book in my year of reading but I realised that that experience was fundamentally a personal one. I knew that not everyone would agree with what I wrote about Pride and Prejudice, say, but perhaps they would recognise that feeling and find that it applied to other novels they had read. So I resolved to build each chapter around a theme, rather than just a book, and worked from there.
(This was a high-risk endeavour. Inevitably, some readers – usually the same ones who may already be irritated when they discover Andy Miller doesn’t write about all fifty books – get cross with the author for liking a book they don’t and, worse, for not liking all the books they do. I know this feeling this very well. As readers, we feel passionate about the books we love and it can be hard to put oneself in the shoes of someone who thinks Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham is a dreary, bloated apology for a novel, which it definitely is. But I wanted to record the reading experience faithfully and if that meant losing friends, so be it.)
In fits and starts, then, slowly and sometimes painfully, the book came together. Even during the long months when nothing got written, I thought about it every day. I never once lost faith in the idea, only in my ability to serve it well. I envisaged a structure that allowed the book to fall apart in the readers’ hands (metaphorically) because that reflected what had happened to me over that year – I had become less inspired by the idea of reading the books than by the process of actually doing it, and the List of Betterment, though a good way to start that process off, had become less and less important to me. I was also aware of my own shortcomings as a reader; and just as I’d laughed when I recognised my bad habit of fibbing about books, so I found it funny to identify and exaggerate my own grumpiness, pomposity, pretentiousness and all the rest of it, because they seemed true and because our relationship with books is complicated and not always positive. I tried above all to be honest. And if you are going to criticise others, always be prepared to take the first hit.
The first draft of The Year of Reading Dangerously came in at a little under 100,000 words and shrunk by a quarter before it was published last year. I was extremely fortunate to have an editor and early readers who helped me focus on the story the book wanted to tell, rather than just the one I wanted it to – this is always the balance a writer has to find. Editing took several months and involved some rewriting but I enjoyed it; as I said earlier, the edit is the fun bit because you know you are making the book better. I confess it has been a strange experience to work on something for quite so long and then watch it go out into the world and be reviewed, appreciated, criticised, understood, misunderstood, and so on. I’m still writing pieces like this one about it a year later. But I am proud of the book; it tells the truth in the way I wanted to tell it. My family has not disowned me.
In the meantime, I have had a bright idea for my next book. I estimate two years for the writing, maybe two and a half. The forecast is terrible and I have no umbrella but that will not stop me. I am just going outside. I may be some time.
Andy Miller © 2015
The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life is published in paperback this month by 4th Estate.
Read our review of Andy’s book in our Non-Fiction section here.