The Year of Reading Dangerously
How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life
By Andy Miller
4th Estate, £12.99 hardback, also available as an e-book
Those of us who love books also love books about books, and The Year of Reading Dangerously, recounting Andy Miller’s attempt to read himself fit, is a terrific addition to that genre.
Ostensibly Miller’s life contained the vital ingredients for happiness: a happy marriage, a healthy son, and a home near enough to London to access its cultural life but even closer to the countryside, allowing for salubrious walks along seaside promenades.
Despite counting these blessings and understanding their value, Miller felt dissatisfied. He was drowning in the diurnal. His commitment to art had faltered. Though he worked in publishing, he’d lost the knack of reading books. (This is a dilemma familiar to anyone working in publishing or the media, where one is duty-bound to read a great many books because they have to, rather than because they want to.)
A chance encounter with The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov, launched Miller on a highly personal course of self improvement. He set out to read the books he’d always meant to tackle, as well as all the books he had lied about having read. If you flick to the appendix, as I did even before beginning Year, you’ll find his List of Betterment, along with The Hundred Books Which Influenced Me Most, and Books I Still Intend to Read. It is an eclectic assortment.
To give an idea of the scope of Miller’s “betterment” reading, he covered everything from Middlemarch to Moby Dick, with pitstops at Carson McCuller, Michel Houellebecq, Henry James and PG Wodehouse. He read Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys and Julian Cope’s Krautrocksampler.
Before setting off on his quest, he’d read Dan Brown, and that’s lucky for us, because he provides a terrific riff on “Ten Astounding Similarities Between the DaVinci Code by Dan Brown and Moby-Dick by Herman Melville.” Hats off to Miller for making such a convincing case for this thesis, and for knowing which novel is better.
Of course Year is more than just a reading list. Inevitably, it’s a meditation on Miller’s life. One of the best side effects of literature is the way it sends us back to our own stories hunting for clues, similarities and divergences. Miller describes how his parents, despite their lack of bookishness, encouraged his love of reading; he allows us to eavesdrop on conversations with his son, Alex, and divulges his wife Tina’s sensible advice about how to finish a difficult book: break it into fifty page assignments. Later, they read War and Peace concurrently, gaining fresh insights into the text — and one another — by comparing their reactions to Tolstoy’s epic masterpiece.
Like beauty and its beholders, the greatness of a book depends, “both on the book and the operator,” Miller reminds us. While massed critical opinion may elevate certain titles to classic status, one person’s “must read” is another’s “meh.” Part of the fun here is discovering where reader and author overlap or argue. It turns out Miller loves Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black – I hated it – and despises W Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale, which I loved. You’ll no doubt enjoy having your own imaginary arguments with him about the books lining your shelves.
But once we’ve learned about ourselves through reading, what should we do with that information? Or as Miller puts it: “What was dangerous about reading dangerously unless you acted on it?” In the end he decides the best course of action is to keep the faith and keep reading. If this adventure has any weighty message, it is that it’s far more dangerous not to read. Deprived of books one can almost feel their brain shrivel up and die.
Books about books are a discussion, albeit one conducted in silence. They allow us to revisit old friends (or frenemies) living on recycled paper and in the memory chips of e-readers, but this time we pay our respects alongside a tour guide with fresh ideas about what is being said and what it might mean. Of course this type of excursion is only pleasurable if you have a good travelling companion, and that’s where Miller shines. He writes from the heart without mawkishness and he’s very funny, and everyone knows that humour is one of the most effective ways to make a serious point.
Miller concludes: “We are creatures made as much by art as by experience and what we read in books is the sum of both.” The point of art – in any format – is that it connects us to “the best that human beings are capable of, in ourselves and others, and we are reminded that our path through the world must intersect with others.”
There is a good deal to savour in this enjoyable memoir, but if I reveal too much you may not read it for yourself. Take my advice and “intersect” with Andy Miller: you will emerge enriched.