The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller

andy miller bookWhat do you do when you seriously lose your reading mojo? I tend to retreat into a palate-cleansing thriller to get mine back, but I’ve never had such a bad case of the bookish blues as Andy Miller did…

Andy had a great job in publishing, a happy marriage and a young son, but wasn’t getting anything from reading any more. As a former bookseller, he had to be able to talk about each book he sold; sometimes due to the familiarity with a title, it was easy to claim to have read a book when he hadn’t, (and we all do it – don’t we?). His solution to his reading block was to embark upon a grand project – to read all those books, mostly but not exclusively classics, that he had lied about reading before. He had this epiphany when he picked up and fell in love with Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita – a book he’d never been able to get into before. (It took me three goes, so I know how he felt on that one.)

Miller draws up The List of Betterment, 50 titles from Middlemarch to War and Peace with some surprises in between; his aim is to read them in a single year.
The road to reading betterment is not without its blocks and detours. A couple of books on the list continued to defeat him like Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, whereas others are a revelation. The chapter in which he compares Moby Dick and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is hysterically funny, and truly insightful (I can say that having read both!):

Moby Dick is a long, gruelling, convoluted graft. And yet,, as soon as I completed it, once I could hold it at arm’s length and admire its intricacy and design, I knew Moby Dick was obviously, uncannily, a masterwork. It wormed into my subconscious; I dreamed about it for nights afterwards.

Rather than formally critique these books, for the most part Miller’s book is a memoir of the reading experience – how he related to them and they to him and his life. If you pick this up expecting a serious look at the canon from someone who knows about these books but had not previously read them, you’ll be disappointed. Instead, it’s primarily a story about how to make reading fun, and through it, get more out of life.

I must admit to having bonded well with the author (as he portrays himself in this book). The Moby Dick chapter was great, but what sealed it for me was that he grew up in Croydon (in Surrey, south of London) which is my neck of the woods too. Indeed, we went to the same library as children, although we were not contemporaries:

How I loved the municipal libraries of South Croydon. They were not child-friendly places; in fact, they were not friendly at all to anyone… The larger building in the town had its own children’s library, accessible at one end of the hall via an imposing door, but what lay behind that door was not a children’s library as we might understand it today, full of scatter cushions and toys and strategies of appeasement; it revealed simply a smaller, replica wood-panelled room full of books. … The balance of power lay with the books, not the public. This would never be permitted today.

There are many footnotes accompanying the text – some are factual, but many contain funny asides – if you’re a footnote-o-phobe, you’ll miss some good little bits, and they’re better being read with the main text rather than appearing as chapter notes at the end.

In one small section Miller skirts with controversy over the world of blogging about books versus getting paid to write reviews. Although those pages are intended to be read with tongue in cheek, I did temporarily lose my sense of humour – soon regained though as we moved onto another topic.

Can there be a booklover who doesn’t love reading books about books? I found this book very enjoyable and always entertaining – even the chapter written as a love letter to Michel Houellebecq’s novel Atomised, – a book I really disliked and did not finish – which proves you don’t have to have liked a book to enjoy reading about it.
I counted up how many titles I’d read on The List of Betterment. 18 plus The Da Vinci Code – I was impressed with myself, being a scientist not an English grad. I have added to my own wishlist – notably Bukowski, and I want to re-read Anna Karenina, preferably in Rosamund Bartlett’s new translation for the OUP. I’ve also made mental notes to dispose of my copies of Of Human Bondage and The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart – I’ll never read them now.

As for Miller, he completed his initial List of Betterment, and further appendices list the titles that most influenced him and books he still intends to read. Fans of books about books of the personal reading journey type, rather than serious lit-crit will find Miller’s memoir great fun; easy reading in good company.

A final postscript adds “Notes for Reading Groups” – these are definitely not be taken seriously … ‘Andy Miller obviously has a unique mind and a fierce intelligence. But would you want to go down the pub with him?’  I think that’s a yes!

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books, and knew the various libraries of Croydon intimately in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Andy Miller, The Year of Reading Dangerously (4th Estate: London,  2014. 978-0007255764, 336 pp., paperback.

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