Even 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.