Reviving his thirst for reading…

The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller

What do you do when you seriously lose your reading mojo? I tend to retreat into trashy fiction, but I have always managed to recover it after a short hiatus. This wasn’t the case for Andy Miller. He has a great job in publishing, a happy marriage and a young son, but wasn’t getting anything from reading any more.

His solution – to embark upon a grand plan – 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 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; the 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 (e.g. Of Human Bondage), others are a revelation. The chapter wherein 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.

I can honestly say that I had exactly the same experience with Moby Dick (see here.)

Rather than formally critique these books, for the most part Miller’s book is a memoir of the reading experience – how he related to these books and they to him and his life. If you pick it 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 a bit 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 – my own neck of the woods.

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.

I convinced myself that he was talking about Coulsdon Library there – which is where I went as a kid every Saturday morning in the second half of the 1960s. Then we moved to Purley (closer to central Croydon), and Purley library was where I went every day during the months before finishing university and starting my first job. I also had a Saturday job at Norbury library through the sixth form – so I know Croydon and its libraries rather well.

In a footnote, he also praises the branch of WH Smiths in the Whitgift Centre in Croydon where he would go to spend prized book tokens – his birthday present of choice. (This is one point where I have to disagree – Websters, the indie book shop further up was far better than Smiths – it is now Waterstones!). I don’t mind footnotes at all, and Miller’s ones frequently contain funny asides – if you’re a footnote-o-phobe, you’ll miss some good little bits.

Miller is not afraid to court controversy in this book. This is where I unbonded with him for a bit. In the chapter on Books 41 and 42, he talks about blogging. He tried blogging about his project himself – but failed. He said he wasn’t reading the books for the sake of reading them, he was reading them for the sake of thinking of something to write about them on the blog. Fair enough, but he goes on to say how “The internet is the greatest library in the universe; unfortunately someone has removed all the ‘no talking’ signs.” after having made some very disapproving generic comments about bloggers. Guaranteed to piss people off, that!

The above section aside, 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 have tried, but disliked so much I did not finish it). I counted up how many titles I’d read on The List of Betterment. 18 + 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 Dice Man – I’ll never read them now.

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. (8/10)

For a pair of other contrasting views on this book – see Susan’s review here and Victoria’s one here.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life by Andy Miller. Pub 4th Estate, May 2014. Hardback, 336 pages.

26 thoughts on “Reviving his thirst for reading…

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    See, that’s why I *love* reading book blogs – your reaction is so different to Victoria’s and that’s the joy of reading and readers. I think his attitude to bloggers would put me off – I get more valuable information about books and whether I want to read them or not by reading blogs and Amazon reviews. We’re not paid to write about books – we write about them because we love them and that’s the important element.

  2. Fleur in her World says:

    I was sold, but his attitude to bloggers puts me off too. I find that thinking how I’m going to write about books enhances the reading experience, though I’ve also come to realise that I have to think about what I’m reading and make sure I’m also reading the books I’ll enjoy but won’t find anything to write about. The ‘no talking’ signs disappeared from my library a long time ago!

  3. Sam (Tiny Library) says:

    This sounds like the perfect book to pick up if you need a bit of a kick-start in reading, or some inspiration. His comments about bloggers are annoying – I read what I want to, not what will be interesting to write about – but the rest of the book sounds so good that I could overlook that.

  4. susanosborne55 says:

    Thanks for the mention, Annabel. I was so busy chortling at the bookselling anecdotes which rang some very loud bells for me that I overlooked any annoying comments about bloggers but I can see that they could get under your skin. Glad to hear that you enjoyed it on the whole, though.

  5. litlove says:

    I’m so glad you read this and enjoyed it. And it was fun for me to read the book again through your eyes. I hadn’t noticed the Croyden references the first time around!

  6. Col says:

    I like the sound of this so it will definitely be one for me. My friends and family take the piss out of blogging relentlessly – and ruthlessly – so I’ll survive the generic blog bash chapters I think! And to top it off as being right for me – I’ve got a meeting in Croydon later this week!

    • Annabel (gaskella) says:

      The blogging bit is just 3 pages really. I did relive my childhood memories through this book though which was lovely – the libraries and the shops. The now big Waterstones in the Whitgift centre in Croydon was an amazing huge indie bookshop which I (and my Dad) regularly inhabited in my teens.

  7. JacquiWine says:

    As Caroline has said, it’s really interesting to read another perspective on this book as I too can recall Victoria’s review! I guess that’s one of the benefits of following a number of different blogs: the ability to see a range of opinions.

    • Annabel (gaskella) says:

      I didn’t start reading it until after Victoria’s review – so I was forewarned. However, I enjoy reading about other people’s personal reading experiences and comparing them to my own, so it was more fun for me!

  8. Alex says:

    I’m also sold. Will probably pick it up after reading Moby Dick this February. How did you feel about the chapters about books you hadn’t read?

    • Annabel (gaskella) says:

      Good question Alex! Actually, they were fine – as all were combined with anecdotes from his childhood and the bookselling / publishing world. So reading about someone else reading The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (a modern classic socialist text) was fine – I don’t need to read it now!

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