The Year of Reading Dangerously, By Andy Miller, book review: 12 months of solitude

 

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The Independent Culture

One year, fed up with whiling away train journeys doing Sudoku puzzles, Andy Miller decided to read his way through 50 books which he’d never got round to. Most are literary classics, but there’s also The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Essential Silver Surfer, Vol. 1, and the Da Vinci Code (in which Miller finds many interesting parallels to Moby-Dick, except of course that the latter is brilliant while the former is shit).

It’s a readable, often funny account of Miller’s response to the weirdness of The Master and Margarita, his bemusement at Charles Arrowby’s dietary habits in The Sea, The Sea, his struggles to adapt to the stately Victorian solemnity of Middlemarch, his delight at the perfect union of art and entertainment in Anna Karenina, and his frank assessment of the tiresomeness of One Hundred Years of Solitude (like watching a chimp riding round and round on a tricycle, puffing a cigar).

Miller likes The Mystery of Edwin Drood and A Confederacy of Dunces and Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, and he loves Atomised (one section is a long fan letter written to Michel Houellebecq in the British Library, full of references to Neil Young songs; I wonder if that letter was ever posted). But he has no time at all for Of Human Bondage, astutely noting that “Maugham seemed to think he was a terrifically astute judge of human character. He presided over the novel like a magistrate.” He doesn’t take to Pride and Prejudice, either – although since in a footnote he attributes the line “Reader, I married him” to her, his judgement is hardly to be trusted on matters Austenian. Personally, I think anyone who doesn’t appreciate Jane Austen is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils, but there you go: part of the fun of this book is the opportunities for creative disagreement it generates.

Yet this is much more than a succession of verdicts on famous books. It’s also an autobiography told through books – the section on Miller’s childhood reading is an engaging take on family life and literature in the 1970s, reminiscent both in style and perceptiveness of Nick Hornby. Miller’s theme is that books aren’t separate from life: “We are creatures made as much by art as by experience and what we read in books is the sum of both.” The reward for reading 50 great or greatish books isn’t knowledge of their content, but the actual process of reading them and the thoughts and feelings they inspire. Perhaps one book never changed anyone’s life; but 50 of them can.

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