“It would be a good thing to buy books if one could also buy the time to read them; but one usually confuses the purchase of books with the acquisition of their contents.”
One day, Andy Miller realized that in the three years since becoming a father, he had only managed to read one book for pleasure. And while The Da Vinci Code was an entertaining page turner, great literature it was not. There were many greater, more redoubtable books in the world, books that he had lied about having read, no less, because he felt he ought to have read them. So Miller created the official List of Betterment, and set out to put an end to his lying literary ways once and for all. What starts out as a list of thirteen books for self-betterment turns into a year-long project involving more than fifty titles.
Miller’s training as a liar about books came from the years he spent working as a bookseller. There he discovered that customers didn’t really want to know the truth about whether or not he’d read a book or if he liked it. They simply wanted their own good judgement confirmed as they made their purchases. He found himself selling the same handful of books over and over again, though he had read none of them cover to cover. His literary honour, once impugned, never recovered, even long after he left the book shop behind.
After three years of reading nothing but Dan Brown, Miller makes his improbable return to regular reading with the somewhat obscure The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Miller summarizes this rather surreal book with humour, but as with many of his chosen titles, I was not moved to interest in reading it. Miller and I had opposite literary tastes in many respects—he was bored by Austen but adored Dickens, though we found some common ground in George Eliot—but that didn’t stop me from being entertained by his journey through literature.
Perhaps the most striking thing about The Year of Reading Dangerously is that Miller isn’t the sort of person you would expect to experience such a severe reading drought. With an undergraduate degree in English, a wife he met while working at a book shop, and job as an editor at the time of writing, the fact that Miller didn’t read for pleasure for three years is actually quite remarkable. If life could overwhelm his love of books, really it could happen to anyone. But with a fifty-page-a-day dose of literature, he is soon back to slipping away from his in-laws at Christmas in order to finish Anna Karenina, and using vacation days to visit the British Library in order to read rare books cover-to-cover.
If The Year of Reading Dangerously has a drawback, it is that Miller’s style is rather self-indulgent, including the wanton use of footnotes, and an entire chapter in the form of a stilted fan letter to Michel Houellebecq. Miller readily admits his editor was right to want to cut the letter, but he has decided to include anyway. But when Miller isn’t letting his sense of humour get carried away, this is an enjoyable tale about a return to books, even if the subtitle is a bit grandiose. Reading probably hasn’t saved Miller’s life, but it has certainly enriched it.
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