The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books (and Two Not-So-Great Ones) Saved My Life
It would be oh-so-reasonable to expect this volume to be a virtuously inspiring summary of books we’ve all been told we should read because they’d be “good for us,” but that we haven’t quite gotten around to --- this past year, or any other year. And to be fair, there is a sprinkling of that fine sentiment in Andy Miller’s THE YEAR OF READING DANGEROUSLY.
But the emphasis in this absorbing chronicle of a British editor-writer’s personal literary journey is not so much on how long or how many; it’s on the danger, specifically the dangers of confronting and dealing with the unknown. Miller really means what his book proclaims on the cover. After all, he’s claiming in the subtitle that the 50 great books he read during one intense year just before turning 40 saved his life.
Great, you might be thinking --- another mid-life crisis tale full of whiney regret, self-recrimination and promises to be future-fulfilled. But it’s not that, either.
What Miller managed to do on his collegial pilgrimage through a book a week (and a few confessed “supplementary” titles) was let the books and their authors vicariously review him. And if that isn’t the ultimate exercise in creative humility, I don’t know what is. The moment I got the gist that this phenomenal effect was actually happening, I found myself turning pages in the addictive way some folks eat barbecue potato chips (crisps to one from Miller’s culture).
"This is one Christmas book that you can dare (dangerously!) to get for your favorite people instead of the ubiquitous gift card. Trust me on that."
The first thing we all need to know, and that Miller finds various ways to suggest, is that there is really no definitive list of the 50 “greatest” books in all of human history (and we can’t know yet what aliens are reading and writing). He gives his own at the end, just to keep the conscientious happy.
While a few iconic titles like WAR AND PEACE, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, MOBY-DICK, CATCH-22, UNDER THE VOLCANO and PARADISE LOST would likely appear on numerous personal lists, and were consumed and mulled over during the author’s dangerous year, the beauty and power of reading is that it will lead every single one of us into a different journey, a different 50 books, and a vastly different outcome of likes, dislikes and epiphany moments.
So it isn’t the actual content of a “good” book, and sometimes not even the skill or relevance with which it is written, that can make it a memorable and life-enhancing experience. As Miller repeatedly discovers and candidly shares in every chapter, the reader’s transformation depends a great deal on “externals,” such as cultural conditioning, childhood memories, emotional makeup, current relationships, vocational activities, responsibilities (especially parental), aspirations, fears, hopes, fulfilments and dreams. Philosophically there’s nothing really new here, but in the practical application of all that to British (and Western world) urban life, THE YEAR OF READING DANGEROUSLY packs a hefty mental and spiritual punch.
Amid the ever-accelerating pace of technology designed to stuff us with trending information --- phones that do 101 things besides making and receiving calls, iPads with computing power and data storage that would have filled a room the year I was born, on-demand interactive television with hundreds of channels, lifetimes worth of virtual games --- Miller instead sought a medium that would impart self-knowledge, mindfulness and a greater connection to real-world living.
He did it largely through the tactile experience of holding hardcovers and paperbacks with turning pages that gradually fill up the space between the thumb and forefinger of one hand, evoking the sense and contentment of having come from somewhere to here (being an avid public transit user undoubtedly helped). Just try getting that from ANNA KARENINA on an eReader. Miller is no Luddite or technophobe (quite the opposite in fact), which makes his re-discovery of the sensory joys of reading all the more arresting.
Equally compelling is his relaxed and fluent way of weaving the threads of his personal and family life through every reading episode, giving the lie to an old truism that reading is a solitary activity (sort of like playing the pipe-organ, with words rather than notation).
What we read, whether for entertainment, challenge, escape, instruction, improvement, or even out of duty, has a profound and enduring effect on who we are and how we live in the world. While it might seem like an over-the-top statement to claim that an arbitrarily or even randomly chosen shelf of 50 books can save one’s life, THE YEAR OF READING DANGEROUSLY makes it all feel oh-so-reasonable.
This is one Christmas book that you can dare (dangerously!) to get for your favorite people instead of the ubiquitous gift card. Trust me on that.
Reviewed by Pauline Finch on December 19, 2014