Ever Lied About What You’ve Read?
We’ve all done it – suggested that perhaps we’ve read a little more than we have. At the age of 12 I tackled ‘War and Peace’ and told my mother I’d finished it when in fact I’d stalled halfway through. It took me 30 years to get around to the other half.
When I set out to write ‘Paperboy’ is was as much about the act of reading as the books themselves. It turns out I was writing a memoir to which Andy Miller’s ‘The Year Of Reading Dangerously’ reads like a scarily exact parallel tract.
Miller realised that after becoming a parent he read just one book in three years, which prompted him to come up with a plan; to read every book he’d lied about having read over the next year. The author is a literary egalitarian who, quite rightly, is prepared to set ‘Anna Karenina’ beside ‘Finn Family Moomintroll’ or find similarities between Herman Melville and Dan Brown. He discovers, as I did, that you can’t just write about reading without the intrusion of your family. Not just a love letter to books, this is a bracing rebuttal to the critical press-gangs who demand that we must unconditionally revere Jane Austen and worship Samuel Beckett.
People are fond of telling us what we ought to read. There’s no-one as censorious as a good liberal. Miller knows that real readers will reach for a Silver Surfer annual just as quickly as for a Somerset Maugham, and that the two can be judged on merits without prejudice. Or indeed pride. He’s happy to throw any author into the ring and go ten rounds with them, even if it ends in defeat.
By the time he was quoting Sondheim and Hancock I was punching the air, yelling ‘Finally! Someone else sees reading the way I do!’ Passionate readers don’t have to find intellectual justification for every book they tackle. You can also read rubbish; no-one’s going to tell you off (Miller is particularly fair-minded about Dan Brown).
‘Here’s an idea,’ says Steve Martin in ‘Trains, Planes & Automobiles’, ‘when you tell a story, try to have a point.’ The point here is that you must meet a book at least halfway, and although it’s not always easy, it exponentially rewards perseverance. Because that’s the point of a book, it’s not a passive entertainment that pushes itself on you but an active, alive thing. It’s not TV, pouring all over you like jolly effluent, it’s something to which you must add your own imagination.
And you can do it. Miller’s wife reminds us that 50 pages of ‘War and Peace’ is the equivalent length to two episodes of ‘Flog It!’ to which all I can say is that she reads fast.
The former Oasis guitarist Noel Gallagher said about seeing Hamlet: ‘It’s four hours long and there wasn’t one single minute that I knew what was going on. I was thinking, I know they’re speaking English but it’s just all fucking gibberish.’ Miller struggled with certain books, too, although never with a closed mind.
In some cases I shouted at the pages, telling him he’d read the wrong novel. If he’d only picked up Patrick Hamilton’s ‘Hangover Square’ instead of ‘Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky’, if he’d only read Maugham’s ‘The Painted Veil’ instead of ‘Of Human Bondage’, if only he’d cut himself some slack by avoiding ‘Moby Dick’ completely, but our reading selections are often as serendipitous as Miller’s choices, and the books aren’t glued to our hands – it’s okay to toss them aside. Not everything a writer writes is perfect. And Miller saw ‘Moby Dick – A Whale of a Tale’, the doomed musical that mixed Melville’s book with St Trinian’s films, which I also loved for its originality and cleverness.
Only one chapter, a requiem for Douglas Adams, feels bolted on and should probably have been trimmed (it’s perfectly fine, just in the wrong book). All in all, this is a lovely read for lovers of books; honest, brave even, frequently hilarious, and should be given to anyone who has to live with someone afflicted by the debilitating disease of staring at sentences. Would it get Liam Gallagher reading? Probably not, but stupidity is God’s way of punishing him for giving buskers ‘Wonderwall’.