Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Review: The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller

The Year of reading Dangerously hardback book cover by Andy Miller
Or, The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books (And Two Not So Great Ones) Saved My Life, to use the full and imposing title.

I'd really expected to love this book, and I did end up liking Andy Miller's voice, at least for the most part. I was just a a bit confused about the overall point of the book and slightly immensely uninterested by same-y novels chosen to discuss.

Summary: A 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.

The blurb seemed to imply to me that this book is about a man who had never known the joy of reading, but who started to feel the lack and therefore challenged himself to read fifty of the greats. His life would be forever altered, etc etc. It's definitely not that... but I'm not really sure what it is, either.

It turns out that Andy Miller is a previously published author, ran a successful chain bookstore and subsequently worked as an editor for a large publishing house. Not exactly the unread eejit implied. The book just doesn't know what it wants to be - there are rambling anecdotes about irrelevant topics, musings about bookish topics, snobbish rants about authors I've never heard of and the occasional smugness about his List.

Ah, the list. Let's talk about that. Andy has created a 'List of Betterment' by choosing ten books that he feels would, obviously, better his life by reading. I think I would have enjoyed it more if I'd had any interest in the ten books he chose to read (right - click to enlarge).  Of these ten, I have read two and only wish to read one further. I have an almost anti-interest in four of them, for God's sake.

He likes left-wing political symbolism and half-mad, epic, rambling monologues, but dislikes Pride and Prejudice! That's fine, to each their own, but I was never going to get on with a bookish memoir written by this person.

So Andy finishes his List about halfway through this book, which prompts a change of tone somewhat. His ten books are completed... so he just decides to read forty more. The thing is, he doesn't tell you what the list consists of or where it's from, and he starts to like the sound of his own voice a bit more. It becomes less about the novels and more about his life, but not the funny parts - just monologues of how he idolises novelists I've never heard of.

It's a shame because I really had expected to love this book, but I ended up actually avoiding picking it back up once I'd put it down. We started off well enough - I really like Andy Miller's narrative voice and he made me giggle out loud a few times as he discusses his daily life and his reading history.

Most straight men are an embarrassment; that much is clear. They enjoy porn, Sky Sports, racing cars, barbecues and gadgets; they stink of Lynx deodrant. Though they mostly prefer the company of other men, they are scared stiff of being mistaken for women or homosexuals. In general, as we have seen, they perceive reading as a feminised activity and, although they do read books, these tend to be about either Joe Strummer or the Mafia, or have some rigid practical application, e.g. How to Cook Great Food without Looking Too Gay. According to a survey from the National Literacy Trust, four out of five fathers have never read a bedtime story to their children, either because they see it as the mother's job or because We're Going on a Bear Hunt doesn't have enough lesbians in it.
It's very contradictory, which irritates me. Even aside from the 'I need more books in my life, even though I'm an editor with an impressive reading history' shtick, Andy Miller never seems to be able to consistently convey one opinion. He states at one point that everybody has their own list and should read for pleasure, not what they're told to... but then spends pages and pages blasting Dan Brown (a pet hate)! God knows why he read it in the first place as it wasn't on his list, but there was no discernible reason for it. Sometimes I wonder if authors don't spend so much time abusing Dan Brown just because he's infinitely more successful.

Then again, there is a mild tone of snobbishness from around the halfway point, so perhaps I shouldn't be too surprised. He and his wife decide to read War & Peace together, and I swear you'd think they were the only people to ever have done so. There's a lengthy pretentious paragraph about how his wife swears she will never need to read another book, which ends with a rather condescending 'you go girlfriend!' 

The full list of Andy's List of Betterment has been thoughtfully included at the back of the book, with helpful little asterisks to denote which books are the easiest to get into... and it makes zero sense. Anna Karenina and The Master and Margarita but NOT Lord of the Flies or The Code of the Woosters? This is just confusing.

I just didn't get on with The Year of Reading Dangerously. It's hard to tell how much of that is due to inherent flaws within the book and how much is simply because my tastes vary quite drastically from those of the author. Either way, I was irritated by the pretentious tone, inconsistencies and my confusion over what the damn point of the book was.

What books do you think should be on any 'List of Betterment?'


  1. What! No P.G. Wodehouse! The books you mention that are on his list do not attract me, so I may not read this book. Or maybe I will some day, who knows.

  2. I quite liked his list - I HAVE read or WANT to read eight or nine of them - and I was starting to think I might try the book... and then I carried on reading your review and now maybe I won't. Thanks for taking that bullet for me sweetness! :P


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