Fifty Shades of Torture

andy millerEven though I tell myself to behave nicely, there is something about reading books about reading that makes me very precious. Perhaps it is simply because I have spent so much of my life reading that I struggle to find anything said about the activity which strikes me as new or profound. And perhaps also it is because I used to teach literature for a living, and so bring to reading a schoolmistress’s approach: I like readers to sit up straight, focus and make an effort. Halfway through Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously; How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life, I was itching to change the subtitle to: How I Made An Unseemly Fuss About A Few Classics. ‘It was only reading books,’ he writes, ‘yet in my head I seemed to be engaged in a heroic struggle…’ Let’s be clear, there is nothing dangerous about the reading Miller does, and his life is not saved in any effective way – unless we count jacking in his job as an editor and turning freelance, thus saving himself a commute to London that sounds tedious and tiring.

For yes, the premise of the book is Andy Miller’s shameful secret: he is an editor at a publishing house who has not in fact read a large number of the books he claims to have done. The rot set in at his previous job as a bookseller (at what sounds like Waterstone’s). He grew weary of customers asking for his opinion on books he hadn’t read or had disliked. ‘It was kinder, and cleaner, to answer all such queries with a ‘yes’. The customer rarely wanted the honest opinion of a shop assistant anyway.’ And once you’ve started to lie about these things, it’s easy to keep going. At the time when he began his reading project, Andy Miller and his wife and small son had just moved out of London and to the South coast. In the three years since his son had been born, he realised he’d hardly read anything at all, and given the commute, and demanding jobs and childcare, it was a stretch to fit reading time into the day. However, to ease his sore conscience, Miller put together a ‘List of Betterment’, a series of literary classics that he felt he had to read in order to gain a little more congruence between inner self and outer projection of identity. ‘These were all books, to a greater or lesser extent, that defined the sort of person I would like to be. They conveyed the innate good taste someone like me would possess, effortlessly.’ And they included books like Middlemarch, Anna Karenina, Pride and Prejudice and Beckett’s The Unnameable.

Progress is initially rocky, but encouraging. ‘I would start on a book; after a spell of bafflement or boredom, steady persistence would start to pay off, giving way after several days to hard-won but tangible pleasure, which in turn spread into a blush of accomplishment’. Literature as medicine, then, which you may have to choke down, but which will do you good in the end. Some of his strategies seem self-defeating – unsurprisingly, his attempts to drown out the noisy commuters on his train sufficiently to read Beckett’s The Unnameable – which he does by listening simultaneously to Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music – end badly. But then he has the bright idea of listening to an audio book while walking around London, which ends well. It’s all a bit of a struggle, though, with only Anna Karenina providing solid pleasure out of his initial thirteen choices.

But he decides to extend the project to 50 books, having got his reading muscles back in shape again. Though I cynically wondered whether the real inspiration wasn’t the thought of writing a book about what he was doing. He joined a book club and began a blog about this point, neither of which enrich his reading in any way. The book club provides him with the usual disquieting experience of arguing that Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale is a bad book against a solid wall of Maugham defence by the other members, and having his own choice of Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black trashed. The blog is, he says, merely an annoying distraction which leads him to think too much about what he’ll say about the book he’s reading in a post, with again those pesky dissenting voices in the comments. Plus he absolutely can’t understand doing anything for which he doesn’t get paid. The internet is where ‘comment is free, everyone is entitled to a wrong opinion, blockheads write zealously, copiously and for nothing.’ And he bemoans the poor old ‘old media’ those professional critics with their ‘skill in fine phrase-making.’

He really should not have done this. What I had noticed increasingly through the book was the absence of anything of interest said about the books themselves. This is a memoir essentially, 80% about Andy Miller, his life, his experiences and his feelings, and most of the books earn a bare synopsis. When he gave up the blog he turned with relief to a book ‘I could enjoy without having to worry what I might write about it later or what anybody else may think.’ When I thought of all the book bloggers I knew who had said so many intriguing things and all out of generosity and passion about books, I could not help but think that here was a man who was intellectually lazy, essentially, unable to make a profound comment about the literature he’d absorbed, but still wanting to get paid for it.

This was followed not long afterwards by the only epiphany he has while slogging through his list. He absolutely loves Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised, and the chapter devoted to it takes the form of a fan letter, for better or worse. Atomised – the most unrelenting representation of the dark side of the male ego – is the book that ‘felt like life’ to him. No wonder he nearly abandoned Pride and Prejudice. But the experience brings him alive, makes him remember why we really read (not just to produce memoirs), brings him in touch with the early death of his father, and seems to provoke way too much discussion about Neil Young and his music.

And finally I understood why I was resisting this book with every fibre of my being. Andy Miller can only read in order to find himself. Ultimately, that’s the point, and that’s why it’s such a slog. Although I would never discourage reading on any grounds, I shudder at such solipcism. I read in order to expand myself, to understand and experience difference. I read to escape the confines of my own mind, not to find them delineated in someone else’s prose.

So let’s be fair here: there are good things about The Year of Reading Dangerously, though you really should not expect any danger to threaten. The essays Miller constructs around the experience of reading are often nicely shaped and thematically interesting. His chapter which compares The Da Vinci Code with Moby-Dick is excellent and original. He is consistently mildly amusing. There are lists in the back that you can have fun arguing with. His description of a 70s childhood rang very true and I enjoyed it. And finally, at the very end, his account of the five times he met Douglas Adams – the author who is his greatest inspiration – provided an occasion where I felt he spoke about books he loved with sincerity and engagement. I wished he had written just about books he loved that reflected the person he is, rather than get muddled up with books that stood for the person he wanted to be, but who he is not. That might be a lesson in reading for all of us.

55 thoughts on “Fifty Shades of Torture

  1. Litlove, Wow. This is one of the most well-written posts I’ve read here in this literary salon – which says a lot since you always seem to hit one over the fence. Ironically, I was trying to figure out what I’d like to be reading in the next few months and was placing a book order last week and was considering this one. Instead I opted for The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop. (which is supposed to arrive today). I might still read this one, but can probably get it from the library. Well-done! P.S. I’m going to make “solipcism” my word of the day – as soon as I look it up in the dictionary. :>

    • Thank you, Grad, you are very kind. I definitely think you should try this one. Everyone’s response is different and there are lots of good things about it. I think you’ll love The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop too!

  2. Ha, I have this on my TBR, a birthday present. I pick it up, put it down again, am so not attracted, maybe you’ve read it for me!?

    • Oh you should definitely give it a go. My response to this book was a bit like hitting the funny bone in my elbow against the wall. It just caught me wrong in some ways when there really is a lot to recommend it. I’d be very interested to know what you think!

  3. Yay, Litlove! Don’t get muddled up by books that represent the person you want to be (or think you ought to be), amen. And thanks for standing up for the book bloggers, many of whom, as you say, consistently write intelligent, thoughtful, interesting and non-solipcistic thought pieces about books.

    • Ye-es, it was the bit about book bloggers that sort of made me overreact I think! I really must stop being quite so defensive about us. I just know so many fantastic bloggers (you included when you can take a break from the books for us!).

  4. What a fun review, Victoria! (‘Consistently mildly amusing’ is a damning-with-faint-praise par excellence ;)) I definitely shan’t bother with this one.

    Something similar, but better, is Beowulf on the Beach. Far from unflawed, but quite amusing (and less autobiographical).

  5. “He is consistently mildly amusing.” If that isn’t damning with faint praise, I don’t know what is. This review made me smile at an unholy uncaffeinated hour of the morning, and also reminded me of how often I say to people that although I don’t believe in God, I do believe in “Middlemarch,” which is my Bible, and made me a better man. It still does, to this day.

    • I did not know you were a Middlemarch fan! I read that book when I was quite heavily pregnant and loved it too. I keep meaning to reread and have the audiobook downloaded for that purpose but haven’t got to it yet. We’ll have a Middlemarch conversation when I do!

  6. What a twit he is. Reading is to experience other lives and characters and worlds and to take you out of yourself, not to validate you as a person. I’m glad I’m going nowhere near this book…..🙂 (Excellent post, btw)

    • I think I’ve been a bit too harsh as he doesn’t come across badly in the book. I just ended up feeling that there was an undertow to the readings that bothered me. But I’m very glad you liked the post!

  7. I love your blog and I love this post. You made me laugh and nod and think. The way you describe what reading does for you would be what I would say if I were as articulate about it.!

  8. The idea of reading a list of books to define the ‘sort of person I would like to be’ fills me with horror! Thank you for this review – I’ve seen a lot of praise for this book, but it doesn’t appeal to me.

    • Jacqui that doesn’t at all sound like your approach to reading. I’m always so impressed by the breadth of your approach and I do love your reviews. I am out of synch though as all the other reviews I’ve read do love this book!

  9. Miller reads just like most undergraduates read – most of those who bother to read at all, I mean – but they at least have the excuse that they are 19 and in a solipsistic developmental stage involving lots of “Who am I?” questions.

    “[M]ildly amusing” by itself is a good jab, but in a paragraph that invokes Douglas Adams, it is positively cruel.

    Litlove, did Miller convince you that the book about German progressive rock was a “great book”? If I read it, will it save my life? At the moment, I listen to almost no German progressive rock.

    • Tom, you’ve solved something for me. I think I read this book wanting in some way to supervise the reading going on in it! That explains a lot. In all honesty, I don’t think the person exists who could persuade me to read a book about German progressive rock. Andy Miller does say that he downloaded a copy of it from the internet, so the option exists to have a look at it that way and judge for yourself! As for saving your life, the ways of books are enigmatic and unpredictable – that much I do believe!

  10. I always think it’s a tremendously ungenerous way to read when you are reading a book just to prove that you can. The game’s not worth the candle in that case — it’s unfair to the book for one thing, and for another thing it’s not giving yourself the space to let the book give you what it has to give. It’s why I’ve never read Ulysses; I don’t like Joyce, and I would only, only be reading the book to prove to myself that I’m clever enough to read it, and THAT is a ghastly waste.

    • I confess I have not read Ulysses for the same reason. Part of me sort of wants to in order to see if I could be clever enough, but that’s not a good side speaking and I wouldn’t give into it!

  11. I wonder whether his whole “books of betterment” concept wrecked him from the start. If he’s trying to read the “right” books so he can say that he read them, it could be that he’s overly concerned about also having the right opinions about them. Far easier then for him to just write about himself. And no wonder, too, that blogs and book groups, where he might get confronted with the notion that his ideas are wrong, would cause him such trouble.

    • Yes, I wonder whether it was the title of the ‘books of betterment’ that fell a bit wrong on me. I think it was meant humourously and I have a sense of humour blind spot about reading. If you do struggle with the classics a bit then I think it would speak to you a great deal more.

      • I have to say I’m glad to see someone else confess to a “humour blind spot about reading.” There are a lot of very smart-sassy sites now that are super-popular (The Toast, for instance) that drive me crazy by being flippant all the time. It can be funny, but in the end it also preempts slower, more serious discussion. So often I feel the books deserve better (slower, more patient, less glib) treatment. But who has time for that on the internet? (Well, we do, obviously.)

      • Oh Rohan, that’s so comforting! That is exactly how I feel. I just love that slow, patient, thoughtful approach, and think it can bring such rewards, too! I love your site for that – your most recent review was certainly a case in point.

  12. Superb writing from you as always. Loved this review. I have never been drawn to books about reading (and I’m sure that is an entirely unwarranted prejudice) and this certainly hasn’t changed my mind🙂

    • The thing is I DO read all the books on reading I hear about and then get grumpy with them all! Something ought to change in that sequence, shouldn’t it?🙂

  13. I find myself very judgmental, but I had already formed an opinion about this person by the time you said that he worked in the book industry and didn’t read or lied about it. The rest does sound distasteful, but what strikes me most is the amount of grumbling / blaming / bitterness you mention. I have enough with my fellow countrypeople as it is, I’ll definitely skip that one.

    • In all honesty, I do a lot more grumbling in the post than there is in the book!🙂 It fell on me wrong and I definitely had a sense of humour failure, but to be fair, Andy Miller is sending up his own feelings of inauthenticity. Still, sometimes it’s a relief to know that a book isn’t for you, given the way the tbr pile grows!

    • I did begin to wonder whether there’s a sport called extreme reading, like there’s a sport called extreme ironing. People hang upside down off cliff faces to press their collars and cuffs – quite extraodinary. But I suppose it’s possible to do the same with reading!

  14. He really said “They conveyed the innate good taste someone like me would possess” about the books he chose? So he did the project and chose his books according to what would impress people the most and make him look good by the sound of it. Gak. Your restraint in writing about the book is admirable. I am not so sure I’d manage to be as kind as you. I’ve seen this one popping up around the internet and I’ve wondered about it but now I will definitely not read it. Thanks for taking one for the team!🙂

    • Annabel’s currently reading it and I hope she’ll review it soon – it’s worth having a second opinion as my reaction wasn’t typical. He is sending himself up quite a lot of the time, to be fair, but at the time it didn’t quite fall right on me. I know you often really enjoy this type of book, Stef, so do read Annabel’s thoughts too!

  15. This was a great review, and I did enjoy the heroic way you found good things to say about the book. I was at no risk of reading it anyway, partly because the title is so blatantly ridiculous and partly because all those books about the reading experience fill me with horror. I don’t understand at all the idea of reading because you want to be the sort of person who has read a particular set of books. Eh? If you’re just going through the activity for that purpose it’s an inherent fail and you’ll still be a phony.

    Along with everyone else, it seems, I was very amused by ‘mildly amusing’. Praising with faint damns indeed🙂

    • It’s always good to feel I haven’t put anyone off reading something, as I’m the last to think my experience will be the same as anyone else’s. But I agree I’m very bad at reading any book out of a feeling of obligation. I’m too lazy, essentially! And there are so many books out there (and on my shelves) calling my name….🙂

  16. I agree with Harriet! And that is a very silly title. I’d expect him at the very least to be sitting in a lion’s cage with his pile of novels to justify it.

  17. Oh what a perfect review! I read this book in November last year and haven’t found a way to write about it. I normally love books about books or reading and had been struggling to find the right words to explain why I just couldn’t warm to this one. And then you found ALL of the right words and put them in the perfect order too. A very satisfying piece to read.

  18. I have read Ulysses and loved it despite struggling with some parts. It’s a romp as well as seminal. I’ll read it again one day. The read enhanced my experience of Dublin too.
    I’m also very-slow-reading Proust, I began with the Moncrieff translation and was thoroughly enjoying this to discover it was the wrong one for the group I’d joined. That I hated. It had to be left temporarily while I recovered from the shock.
    And I’ve since discovered how fascinating and singular a life Moncrieff had, so his biography is on my TBR.
    Can’t make up my mind about the Miller though: to read or not to read… But great Australian lit is my fare now before a long stay there. Too much to say about that.

    • Ooh Australian lit – have you discovered Reading Matters, Carol? Kim’s Australian (living in the UK) and writes a great deal about Australian literature. Do have a look at her site: http://readingmattersblog.com/

      I’m impressed by your reading Ulysses – but I too love Proust. I read him in France on my year abroad when I didn’t have that much to do, and then I just fell in love with him. I can quite see how having to change translation would be a nasty shock!

  19. I’m not interested in reading this one (I tend to shy away from books about reading because they add too many pages to my TBR tome). Still, I’ve found nyself asking the question, “What would reading dangerously mean for me?” I like to read in the bath tub, a very dangerous place for someone like me who drops things all the time. I’ve also been known to read while walking down the street, a pretty dangerous thing to do for all kinds of reasons. Oh, and reading for pleasure at work or school, where it wasn’t allowed, was once a favorite dangerous pastime of mine…

  20. Pingback: Literary linking #2 | Literasaurus

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