Andy Miller is the author of the new book The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books (and Two Not-So-Great Ones) Saved My Life. He also has written Tilting at Windmills and 33 1/3, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Times and The Telegraph. He can be found on Twitter here. He lives in Kent, England.
Q: What about The Master and Margarita made it the right book to start your reading project?
A: Sheer chance. It happened to be on the shelf of the bookshop I happened to be in on the day I felt like reading it. I knew it only by its reputation: as a perennial "cult" novel.
I should add that, at that stage, I had no plans to write about it or to undertake the full year of reading for a book project or anything like that. (Some people seem to find this hard to believe but it's true.)
Anyway, it was a perfect book to start with, as it turned out. You can't fully understand The Master and Margarita on first reading, unless you happen to be an expert on Soviet history. It is a deliberately obscure and satirical novel, certainly in its opening pages. But there really is something magical about it too.
Several readers of The Year of Reading Dangerously have told me they had a similar experience to mine - that they got caught up and transported by The Master and Margarita without fully comprehending what was happening or why.
Anyway, when I finished it I felt I had to carry on. It ignited - or reignited - something inside me. Have you read it? You should do.
Q: Looking back at your experience, would you encourage others to follow a “List of Betterment,” and how did the books you picked make it onto your list?
A: Yes, absolutely. I chose books by instinct rather than by quota and I tried to go into every book wanting to read it in that moment. In other words, I didn't write anything down in advance and I didn't choose books just because I thought I should represent a particular kind of book or author. At the end of each book I'd think: OK, what do I want to read next?
The point about a "List of Betterment" - which is, incidentally, a deliberately knowing and slightly silly thing to call it - is that it should come from you - your taste and your experience of reading.
How you feel about the books you like, the ones you've read, the ones you haven't, the whole Literary Canon, is something only you can know. So look to your heart and your head. You don't have to read Moby-Dick. But equally, you sort of do.
Q: How was your book’s title selected?
A: Well it did take a year and there was reading involved. It's also an ironic reference to the book and film The Year of Living Dangerously by Christopher Koch.
Again, the title is deliberately knowing and slightly silly: mock-heroic. If you don't get that, you won't get it. I understand there is nothing inherently dangerous about reading unless you make it so. Some readers are irritated to discover I don't read Middlemarch suspended from a trapeze or in a shark cage or something. But I'm British so I'm not a literalist. Maybe I'll do that next time.
Q: You have a list of books at the back of The Year of Reading Dangerously that you still intended to read. Have you made progress with that list, and what have you especially enjoyed (and not enjoyed)?
A: Oh gosh. I'm beginning to wish I hadn't included that list but only because I seem to be making slow progress and everyone can see! I blogged about it recently here. Basically, I have been reading a LOT over the last year but most of it's not been from that list.
To answer your question, I really loved One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and there haven't been any books I haven't enjoyed, though Tarantula (Bob Dylan's "novel") was a stretch. But I like being stretched. Again, not literally.
I just finished Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright-Sided, her investigation of the negative side of the positive thinking industry, which I thought was brilliant and extraordinarily brave.
The recent novel I most enjoyed was Carlene Bauer's Frances & Bernard, which I found incredibly moving, also beautifully written and full of ideas about art and spirituality. Read that too!
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I've got several ideas for another book but they're fighting one another for supremacy at the moment. This one took much longer to write than I anticipated, several years longer in fact. So I am scribbling down ideas to help me to decide which I really want to write and what I think I can be funny about.
The rest of the time I'm reading books. I'm also re-watching Twin Peaks. I know that's not really work but the creative process is a mysterious one and it's important to vary one's cultural diet. Yeah, that.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: If you read The Year of Reading Dangerously and disagree with me about certain books, that's OK. We cannot all like the same things. I tried to capture different ways of feeling and thinking about books, so even if you don't concur with my take on, say, Pride and Prejudice, there will be another book you feel the same way about. Again, it should come from you.
Also, why don't more Americans watch Community? It used to be on NBC and now it's streaming on Yahoo or something. Seriously, it's baffling to me. You have the funniest TV show in the world right now, even without Donald Glover, and almost no one watches it. I think that's everything. Let me know about Community.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb