The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller has a subtitle that is extremely entertaining – How Fifty Great Books (and Two Not-So-Great –Ones) Saved my Life. I loved the title and the delightful sub-title too. The whole thing sounded like an exercise in deliciousness, considering that reading is one of my main pleasures in life. Andy Miller calls the book “a memoir and a confession.”
The author is mired in the quicksand of daily life and one day it dawns upon him that he has read exactly one book in the past 3 years. This realization along with a chance sighting of a book he has always wanted to read, in a bookstore near his house, sets him on the path to the ‘List of Betterment’. This is the list of books he hopes to complete in a year, books which he has always wanted to read but never got down to actually reading. He also feels guilty about the books he has claimed to have read to friends, which he had actually never read.
Getting through the List of Betterment is not an easy task since the books he has chosen are serious works by renowned authors. He starts with The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov and enjoys it thoroughly. But he hits the first road block immediately after, with George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Andy is disheartened when he realizes that he’s just not able to fathom the intricacies of this huge tome which contains a plethora of characters, and he actively considers the idea of leaving it unread. But his pragmatic wife tells him to quit dallying around and just get on with it, and gradually the book ensnares him.
Andy Miller works his way through writers of all nationalities and books set in different eras. Charles Bukowski, Karl Marx, William Golding, Mary Shelley, Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Toni Morrison, P G Wodehouse and many more become his brief acquaintances over that period. He adopts a very casual and easy tone of writing and coupled with his wit, converts the reader from a mere spectator to a participant in the reading journey. The fact that the author does not find it an easy task makes him more real and likeable, since I’m sure that we have all gone through the agony of gritting our teeth and pushing on with difficult books. It was like being in a book club where the only thing we had to do was show up and pay attention.
The author has included vignettes from his personal life which bolster the narrative rather than detract from it. He talks about finding the requisite time to read in the middle of all the hustle and bustle of daily life. His train journey to work, which had hitherto been involved in solving Sudoku puzzles, is now spend with a book. This is the time he reads the most.
There’re 3 Appendix at the end of the book that are three lists.
- Appendix 1 – List of Betterment
- Appendix 2 – The Hundred Books Which Influenced Me Most
- Appendix 3 – Books I still Intend to Read
These lists are a virtual cornucopia of literary gems and makes for compelling reading.
There was only one chapter which didn’t resonate with me at all and that was a letter, which Andy Miller writes to Michel Houellebecq who’s the author of Atomised. Andy terms it the greatest book he has ever read. The letter is quite long and it tired me out. To be fair to Andy, he does warn the reader that it might be “weird and confusing and you may want to skip it.” But I was bitten by the same bug as Andy, of not leaving books unread, and so I ploughed through this chapter with gritted teeth, furrowed brow and a deep determination to see it through.
I have always been wary of Classics and have generally stayed away from them. This book gave me a chance to get a glimpse of that world which I had been avoiding. I was introduced to a multitude of authors whom I had never heard of before, like Rex Warner, Julian Cope, Carson McCullers and John Kennedy Toole, to name a few. It was also quite gratifying to see two of my favourites, Jane Austen and P G Wodehouse, in this list.
After reading this book, I have decided that there’re some Classics which I would like to read, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina being one of them, and some others which I have every intention of staying away from, like A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. I would also like to make an attempt at making my own list, with a time-frame attached, but I only hope that I can display the same enthusiasm and determination that Andy Miller did with his list 🙂