Another day, another bibliomemoir. Published in 2012, this is actually one of the first, meaning that Andy Miller is one of the pioneers of the genre. As with many things on the cutting edge, it is perhaps unsurprising that there were some bumps in the road. An early warning sign with this book is the difficulty that Miller had choosing his title. This occupies the first few pages of the book. Having finally decided on The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books (and Two Not-So-Great Ones) Saved My Life, it becomes clear that this was more or less because he thought it sounded best rather than because it was an accurate description of the experience. Literature did not save Miller’s life in the literal sense (see what I did there?) but he did fall back in love with reading and over the course of the year, decided to go freelance. In essence, this is one man’s mid-life crisis via the medium of reading.
The book begins with Miller explaining how parenthood and the pressures of daily commuting had killed off his love of reading. A chance encounter in a bookshop led him to pick up The Master and Margarita and he decided he needed to take it up again. Ultimately, this led to the tongue-in-cheek List of Betterment, or fifty books which Miller set himself the target of actually reading rather than simply pretending that he had. In the beginning, Miller keeps things to approximately one book per chapter but over time he seems to run out of puff until he is lumping a number together and then eventually he just gives up and refers us to the list in the appendix. He’s been reading dangerously, not in detail.
A weakness in Reading Dangerously in comparison to other bibliomemoirs which I have read and enjoyed is that it seems to lack a central thesis. For example, Samantha Ellis’ How to be a Heroine considers what the female characters under discussion tell us about being a woman and how reading the right book at the right time can change your outlook. Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm considers the role of childhood reading both in our early development and our adult lives. Andy Miller feels more like another Jon-Ronson-esque middle-aged bloke trying to explain that he has been doing a lot more reading than usual lately and isn’t that good. I should add here that I generally like Jon Ronson.
This isn’t to completely throw the book out of the window. Miller does make a lot of interesting points about attitudes towards reading in today’s culture. Society today expects instant gratification so for a lot of people the idea of ‘trudging’ through the classics of literature fails to appeal. My recent extended Brontë binge was seen as odd by even some of my friends. There is also the question though of what makes a book ‘great’, with Miller reporting bemused findings on books such as Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea and W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. Miller also came to explain a little of how he ended up lying for so long about his reading habits; working as a bookseller meant that he often had to put aside a love for Tolstoy in favour of flogging Titchmarsh. Expressing an honest opinion always led to the risk of customer upset. I have never responded well to someone criticising a book that I love. Even Miller’s casual dismissal of Pride and Prejudice caused a frown while reading. What makes exchanging opposing opinions on literature such a minefield?
In common with every other bibliomemoir that I have read, Miller looks back on his life in reading and comments on what a solitary and friendless child he was. Is it the books that make us bookworms such socially mal-adjusted children or do we turn to the books because of the social difficulties? I have a feeling that they go hand in hand. Still, I failed to warm to Miller’s autobiography in books in the way that I normally do. While I see that Reading Dangerously was intended to be comic and self-deprecating, I still found the List of Betterment to have a snobbish note that I could not care for. There seemed to be an arrogance behind his tone that grated as the book wore on. Interestingly, he had charted his progress originally in blog format before abandoning this since he was not getting paid for it, stopping off for an aside on the pointlessness of blogging in general. Between that and the Jane Austen indifference, I’m really not sure what he and I would talk about if we were ever to meet.
The strangest thing for me about Reading Dangerously is the sense that Miller is presenting reading as an odd thing to do. He has written a book about how strange it is these days for someone to read. He debates on whether there is a difference between claiming to have read Pride and Prejudice and actually doing so. Yes, there is a difference. He wonders whether reading Anna Karenina makes him a better person. No, it does not. He is talking though about a very strange phenomena in our society, the urge to simplify and infantilise, to ‘take out the tricky bits’ but yet he is never quite able to take hold of the topic. I have discussed before how sad I found it as a former teacher that there was a drive to find stories with the most basic possible vocabulary because Heaven forfend that the children have to learn new words. Miller expresses disgust at seeing adverts for book groups which proudly advertise that it is not necessary to actually read to be a member – they will be selecting novels with television adaptations or else people can just turn up for the chat and cake. With that in the background, Miller’s List of Betterment really is a call to arms.
No matter how nettled I ended up feeling at different points, I did agree with Miller’s ultimate conclusion. Bibliotherapy really is good for you. A bus journey spent reading always puts me in a better mood than one spent playing on my phone or browsing social media. Reading books, no matter the books, gets your mind whirring rather than numbing it. While few people around me remember it, I too was once a lapsed reader. For me, it was an English degree that put me off and nothing but graduation could cure me. I was able to rediscover reading as an individual activity, as a means of escape and finally, through the site, as a means of self-expression. Reading the right book at the right time really can change your life but alas, this was perhaps not the book for me.
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Published by HarperCollins on December 9th 2014
Genres: Biography & Autobiography, Personal Memoirs, Literary Criticism, Books & Reading, Humor, General
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