The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books (and Two Not-So-Great Ones) Saved My Life

Dedication

For Alex, love Dad

Contents

Dedication

A Word of Explanation

I

Book One

Book Two

Books Three to Five

Book Six

Books Seven to Nine

Book Ten

Book Eleven

Books Twelve and Thirteen

II

III

Books 28, 29 and 31

Books 41 and 42

Book 45

Books 49 and 50

Epilogue

Appendix One

Appendix Two

Appendix Three

Bibliography

Notes for Reading Groups

Acknowledgements

Exclusive Excerpts from the Personal Blog of ‘Leonard Bast'

About the Author

Copyright

About the Publisher

WARNING!

THIS BOOK CONTAINS SPOILERS.

 

 

 

 

‘I long to reach my home and see the day of my return. It is my never-failing wish.'

Homer,
The Odyssey

‘What's the point of going out? We're just going to wind up back here anyway.'

Homer Simpson

A Word of Explanation

Let me begin on the back foot and linger there awhile.

This book is entitled
The Year of Reading Dangerously
. It is the true story of the year I spent reading some of the greatest and most famous books in the world, and two by Dan Brown. I am proud of what I achieved in that year and how the experience changed my life – really altered its course – which is why I am about to spend several hundred pages telling you about it. However, the book you are holding has not always been called
The Year of Reading Dangerously
. I started out with that title but then had second thoughts. For a while
The Miller's Tales
seemed like it might work. After that, I briefly considered
Up! From Sloth, then The Body in the Library
. Other possibilities included
Hunting Paper Tigers, Real Men Don't Read Books, Memoirs of a Born-again Pessimist, Croydon Till I Die
and
Bast Unbound
. For about five minutes, it was called
Outliars
. Then there was
Against Nature II: Resurrection
, which was followed by
What Are You Staring At?
, which in turn gave way to
We Don't Need to Talk About We Need to Talk About Kevin (To Have a Good Time)
. After one particularly difficult morning, I amended the title page to
F**k the World, I Want to Get Off
. Finally, however, that first thought prevailed and I turned back to
The Year of Reading Dangerously
, or, to give it its full title,
The Year of Reading Dangerously and Five Years of Living with the Consequences
.

Because there are a lot of Andy Millers in the world, several of whom are writers, I also contemplated a change of pen name. For the record then, this book was not written by Andrew Miller, the bestselling novelist, or Andy Miller, winner of the Yeovil Literary Prize for poetry, or Andy Miller, the television scriptwriter, or A.D. Miller, whose thriller
Snowdrops
was shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker prize and whose Christian name turns out to be Andrew. Nor was it written by Andrew Miller, pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, Andy Miller, guitarist in the Britpop band Dodgy, Andrew Miller, the Labour MP for Ellesmere Port and Neston, Andrea Miller, founder of Brooklyn's Gallim Dance company, nor any of the hundreds of Andy Millers on Facebook, especially the one who counts ‘Women bringing me sandwiches' amongst his activities and interests. Each of these Andy Millers has something to recommend him – or her – but none of them is me. So for this book, I have decided to stick with Andy Miller because that is the name of the man who wrote it; I make my own sandwiches (see
page
). Further activities and interests will be made abundantly clear in due course.

It may come as a relief to learn that the book's subtitle has remained immoveable throughout and that, by and large, it is factually accurate:
How Fifty Great Books (and Two Not-So-Great Ones) Saved My Life
.

The backbone of
The Year of Reading Dangerously
is a list of fifty books; I started out with just a dozen or so but then found I couldn't stop. In an age of communications overload, we seem to find lists like this irresistible. As we are called upon to consume ever more information and broadcast quick and decisive opinions, so we are drawn to this basic method of data-handling: directories of best and worst, top hundred countdowns, another 1001 things to do before you die. The reader is at liberty to flip to Appendix One: The List of Betterment (see
page
) whenever he or she likes, that's why we have included it. However, my list differs from others in one crucial regard: it is neither a prescription nor a set of numbered instructions. Rather, it is the inadvertent by-product of the process described in these pages. It is the cast left by the bookworm.

Fig. 1: Profound misconception of the work in the mind of uncomprehending reader.

(courtesy BodyParts3D, made by DBCLS)

Fig. 2: The reality.

(courtesy Gary Houston)

The Year of Reading Dangerously
emerged from an honest attempt to read a number of books which, for reasons which will be divulged later, I had succeeded in dodging during an otherwise fairly literate thirty-seven years on Earth. If you
glance through the titles and are surprised at the omission of certain novels or authors, or certain types of novel or author, it is because either I had already read them or I did not want to. Likewise, if you are unconvinced by a particular non-canonical choice, it was not an attempt to be unorthodox or provocative but simply intuitive – intuitive and honest. At a certain point, if I felt like reading
The Silver Surfer
, say, or
The Epic of Gilgamesh
, or something by Henry James, Julian Cope or Toni Morrison, I did so. There were no quotas. This selection of books, therefore, does not constitute a deliberate or alternative canon. If you scan Appendix One: The List of Betterment, and think to yourself, hang about, where is Updike, Woolf or Trollope? Martina Cole or Jules Verne? That's not the novel by Cervantes I'd have chosen . . . What about
Ulysses
?
The Catcher in the Rye
?
Girl With a Pearl Earring
? How can this list be taken seriously when it finds no place for
my
favourite authors or at least those writers
I
consider indispensable?, then I respectfully suggest you write your own book – unless your name is Andy Miller, in which case you have probably already done so.

Above all, wherever possible I tried to avoid bad faith. First I lived this book. Then I thought about it for ages. Then I wrote it down.

So the List of Betterment represents a diary rather than a manifesto; a ledger, not an agenda. I am not urging you to read all the books in this book – there is no need, because somewhere in the back of your mind you will already have a tentative list of your own, the contents of which are drawn from your curiosity or enthusiasm or guilty conscience, rather than mine.

What kind of a book is
The Year of Reading Dangerously
? To the extent that we are governed by the laws of copyright and ‘fair use', it is a work of literary criticism. It is also a memoir and a confession. I have not tried to explain these books solely in terms of their relationship to other books; instead, what follows is the story of an attempt to integrate books – to reintegrate them – into an ordinary day-to-day existence, a life which was becoming progressively less engaging to the individual living it. In this book you will find footnotes, emails, personal reminiscences, blog extracts, recipes, potted biographies, strong opinions and jokes. You could conceivably use it as a reading group crib, though I don't advise it; you might receive some strange looks across the savouries. This book also contains strong language and a Tweet, for which I apologize in advance (the Tweet, not the cursing). Please note: although I read fifty great books in a year, I have not talked about every single one of them in these pages. This is either because I had too much to say or too little. I have attempted instead to give you a sense of the journey, its highs and lows, rather than laboriously describing each one of the rest stops. This is a book, not a blog; and the great books I have chosen to write about here are the ones which encapsulate the major themes and recurring motifs of my year of dangerous reading. Also, Perennial told me they didn't have enough paper for all fifty.

In 1945, the author Malcolm Lowry was asked by his publisher to account for the idiosyncrasies of a novel he had just submitted called
Under the Volcano
(Book 35). In the persuasive forty-page letter he wrote in reply, Lowry described his book as follows:

‘It can be read simply as a story which you can skip if you want. It can be read as a story you will get more out of if you don't skip. It can be regarded as a kind of symphony, or in another way as a kind of opera – or even a horse opera. It is hot music, a poem, a song, a tragedy, a comedy, a farce, and so forth. It is superficial, profound, entertaining and boring, according to taste. It is a prophecy, a political warning, a cryptogram, a preposterous movie, and a writing on the wall. It can even be regarded as a sort of machine: it works too, believe me, as I have found out.'

A sort of machine: I like that. Every book is a sort of machine and this one is no exception. You have to read it to find out how it works.

What makes a great book? That depends both on the book and the operator. I think of
Under the Volcano
as a ‘great book' because a) I like it and b) the body of expert critical opinion supports me in this view. But we must acknowledge that greatness recalibrates itself from person to person and book to book. To one reader, ‘great' may denote unbridled cultural excellence, e.g. the greatness of Tolstoy or Flaubert; to another, it is an exclamation of pleasure, e.g. ‘
One Day
by David Nicholls: what a great book!' It may be that when we speak of ‘a great book' we are referring to a pillar of the
Western canon: a classic, in other words.
1
‘Great books' of this kind may be important but they are not always straightforward or entertaining. Some, such as
Under the Volcano
or
Ulysses
, may require other great books to help make sense of them. Difficulty in a book constitutes a sort of unappealing literary masochism to some; to others it is a measure of artistic genius. Either way, a great book does not have to be a good read to be a great book. Some books become great because the public embraces them en masse; others are judged great by the critical establishment despite public apathy – or even because of it. All these sorts of book feature in
The Year of Reading Dangerously
, which could yet be called
Fifty Shades of Great
. Every single book herein may be considered great in one way or another, either because it was born great, achieved greatness, had greatness thrust upon it, was declared great by Oprah, or came thirty-first in a poll conducted by
Take a Break
magazine or the
Literary Review
to find the greatest books of all time. And this even applies to the two not-so-great ones. I hope that's clear.

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