The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller

Synopsis:

20910034A working father whose life no longer feels like his own discovers the transforming powers of great (and downright terrible) literature in this laugh-out-loud memoir.

Andy Miller had a job he quite liked, a family he loved, and no time at all for reading. Or so he kept telling himself. But, no matter how busy or tired he was, something kept niggling at him. Books. Books he’d always wanted to read. Books he’d said he’d read that he actually hadn’t. Books that whispered the promise of escape from the daily grind. And so, with the turn of a page, Andy began a year of reading that was to transform his life completely.

This book is Andy’s inspirational and very funny account of his expedition through literature: classic, cult, and everything in between. Beginning with a copy of Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita that he happens to find one day in a bookstore, he embarks on a literary odyssey. From Middlemarch to Anna Karenina to A Confederacy of Dunces, this is a heartfelt, humorous, and honest examination of what it means to be a reader, and a witty and insightful journey of discovery and soul-searching that celebrates the abiding miracle of the book and the power of reading.

Review:

From the title and cover copy you’d think Andy Miller was a man in crisis that was saved from the brink by great literature, or maybe a former reader that found himself enlightened and his life enriched by a year with the classics.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Miller is a man of letters through and through, a reader born into a family of readers. He went to college for literature, worked for years at a bookshop, and eventually became an editor for a London publishing house. Books are, and have always have been, his life and his livelihood.

But then something happened – he had a kid and moved to the suburbs. This, apparently, is what his life needs saving from. You see with a young child in the house he had trouble finding time to read. Oh dear. I guess that no one told him kids are time consuming?

His solution is to make a list of 50 books that he’s lied about reading and actually finish them. He manages this easily by cutting out the sudoku on his commute and disappearing for hours at a time on the weekend to get the 50 pages in.

The list gets read without much hardship. Miller does a great job discussing some titles, making weighty tomes approachable and interesting. He has me considering reading Anna Karenina and War and Peace, books that until this point I thought would require two weeks of solitude to even attempt. Most other books, though, are a springboard into memories from his childhood. I’m glad that this or that book means a lot to him and that it connects deeply with his past… but I’d like to hear more about the actual book, you know?

This is the main problem I have with Reading Dangerously. Instead of examining books through the lens of his life he plops his life front and center, dressing it up with classics and cult novels. (But never, ever genre. The horror.) Every once in a while Miller manages to hit something more universal, more human, but it happens so rarely I think it must be a fluke.

Other problems abound. Miller harangues Dan Brown for filling his writing with the odd “clunking… expository dialogue or pseudo-scholarly statistic or shockingly ugly sentence.” Then he writes this in a chapter that he admits if it were up to him (wasn’t it?) would have been cut out entirely:

I am writing to you from the lobby of the British Library in London. The St Pancras facility, which consists of reading rooms, galleries, cafes and a shop, was designed by the architect Colin St. John Wilson and opened to the public in 1997. It is the largest public building constructed in the United Kingdom in the twentieth century, requiring approximately ten million bricks and 180,000 tonnes of concrete….

Pot, meet kettle.

Much of the second half of the book feels like vamping for the sake of meeting a page quota. We have detailed descriptions of his four(-ish) encounters with Douglas Adams, a “fan letter” to an author, and three appendices – the original list of 50 books, 100 books that influenced him, and books “I still intend to read”.

To top it all off there is stuffy disdain for books with a plot, the “feminization” of reading, and all those people on the internet that are diluting the opinion of professional critics. “The Internet is the greatest library in the universe,” he writes. “Unfortunately someone has removed all the ‘no talking’ signs.”

So yeah. Way to piss me off.

While I made a fair share of notes throughout the book the overwhelming majority are quotes by other people. I was hoping Reading Dangerously would open my eyes to new books and new ways of looking at old favorites, but instead I was saddled with a navel-gazing working father that spouts all sorts of things that don’t add up to very much.

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