Reading this book about reading books, strangely did not seem like reading a book about reading books.
Andy Miller’s “The Year of Reading Dangerously’’ recounts his reading of 50 books that make up his “List of Betterment.” Once a bookseller and then an editor at a publishing house, Miller read voraciously since childhood. But the distractions of adulthood — jobs, friends, marriage, fatherhood, TV, Web-surfing, video games, drinking — dumbed him down. So he assembled a list of works that, for one reason or another, he considered musts for a 21st-century literary man.
With this effort, Miller joins the growing ranks of authors of “stunt lit,” where smart writers undertake quests to find themselves. So, for example, Bruce Feiler tracks the five books of Moses in “Walking the Bible,’’ and Elizabeth Gilbert finds her soul in “Eat, Pray, Love.’’
Miller’s quest covers a wide range of literature — from Mikhail Bulgakov to Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens to Iris Murdoch, Herman Melville to John Kennedy Toole. Miller doesn’t recap the stories or even their themes; instead, he talks about his experiences reading them, with a few pithy thoughts and takeout quotes from the works. So the book seems less a book than a compilation of blog entries, riffs, diary notes, confessions, boasts, lists, thought experiments, and scribbles.
Often Miller’s selections and comments seem random. Among a long list of novels, for example, he includes Marx and Engels’s “The Communist Manifesto.’’ But he doesn’t say anything about this poetic, philosophical dissection of capitalism — only that reading Marx irked his mum and depressed him for its grim message.
He’s better on Tolstoy. Immersing himself in “Anna Karenina’’ and “War and Peace,’’ he tracks their sprawling dramatis personae, poetic philosophizing, and emotional twists. Of the first, he offers: “It was the perfect balance of art and entertainment — no, not a balance, a union of the two.” Of the second, he reveals getting lost in literature, really for the first time. “At no point,” he says, “did I give serious consideration to how long ‘War and Peace’ is, how drawn-out and complex, how dauntingly vast.” Such rapture is, of course, the promise of great literature — one we forget in our age of distraction..
What about The Great American Novel? To explore Melville’s “Moby-Dick,’’ Miller spends about a dozen pages describing an imaginary “grudge match” between Melville and Dan Brown, author of “The Da Vinci Code.’’ Both recount a quest for a “holy grail,” pack their works with period details, use unreal dialogue, revel in symbolism, struggled with critics and publishers, and produced spinoffs. Most embarrassingly, Miller publishes a 20-page valentine to Michel Houellebecq, a French author of a dystopian novel called “Atomised.’’ Awed, Miller quotes Houellebecq: “[I]n the end, life always breaks your heart.” And: Life involves an “absolute irreversibility of all processes of decay,” but that’s “not any reason for us to give up trying to make it better.” Profundity cannot always be rendered in bite sizes.
There are, however, slivers of gold in Miller’s effort. If you forge ahead — the way Miller did with “The Master and Margarita,’’ “Middlemarch,’’ and “War and Peace’’ — you get an affecting tale of the rediscovery of great books. As a writer, Miller finds his inspiration in Ignatius J. Reilly, the hero of Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces.’’ Noting that Ignatius writes “UP FROM SLOTH” on the cover of his journal, Miller notes: “I could relate to it.”
Miller’s quest, ultimately, seems better suited for a one-man show than a book. Imagine a friendly, funny Brit pacing a stage as quotes and video clips flash on a giant screen. With vigor, he riffs on lit in a post-lit age. Dan Brown: terrible! “Middlemarch’’ and “Moby-Dick’’: hard but worthwhile. “Of Human Bondage’’ and “Pride and Prejudice’’: ugh!
The best critique of this book might be found in Miller’s crack about Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude’’: “To me it seems like one initially amusing trick repeated again and again, a chimp in a small room riding a tricycle, puffing on the stub of a cigar, going round and round in circles.”
Charles Euchner, a case writer and editor at Yale School of Management, is the author of “Nobody Turn Me Around’’ and “The Big Book of Writing.’’