Book Review: The Year of Reading Dangerously (How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life)

Andy Miller's 'List of Betterment'

My fiftieth book of the year – just after I turned 50 – it was a sign… it had to be The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life.

Former bookseller and current author & editor Andy Miller made a ‘List of Betterment’: ten books which he felt he ought to have read (or had already claimed to have read). He got through the original ten in three months and decided to add to it – to continue ‘bettering’ himself – until he had fifty on the list. Some were obvious classics: Jane Eyre, War and Peace, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. Others were less obvious (some may say obscure): Post Office, Krautrocksampler, The Aerodrome.

I already found it interesting how one comes to read a particular book at a particular time. Social media is partly to blame for every reader with a Twitter account trying to be the first to post a review of The Goldfinch (or so it seems to me), and therefore we feel we really *must* read The Goldfinch.[1]

What particularly struck me was that many of the books Andy read were those he (and his wife) already had on their shelves and it struck me that we had books like that too: invisible books, unread books, unread by us at least. I went to the shelves in search of Beowulf (Seamus Heaney translation) and couldn’t find it but I did find a 1942 copy of War and Peace (bought by my husband as a theatrical prop, unread by either of us). This book had moved house with us at least three times, packed and unpacked, removed from and replaced on bookshelves. Unread. Frustrated, I went off to try again. There Beowulf was, in the gap left by War and Peace. They had stood next to each other on the shelf. Now do you see what I mean by ‘invisible books’?  Another sign… and I was starting to assemble a ‘Pile of Betterment’[2].

I can honestly say this book has made me re-evaluate how, why and what I read. I already had an e-Folder of Betterment[3] on my Kindle, sparked by those lists which appear in the paper from time to time: 100 Books You Must Read In A Lifetime; the 50 Best Books of All Time; etc. (The Guardian, I’m looking at you with narrowed eyes).  The thing is it’s really easy to create an e-Folder of Betterment because you can download samples of all the books you intend to read and then just start reading… Or not. Hence why I have two copies of Jane Eyre on my Kindle.[4]

This is not just a book about books. The autobiographical content struck a chord with me and, above all, it is a really funny read. I can’t begin to describe the chapter in which Andy compares Dan Brown with Herman Melville; you’ll just have to read it for yourself. I snorted and giggled throughout the whole book. The footnotes alone make for an extremely entertaining read and, above all, it will make you think about how and what you read. Oh, and don’t forget to cover the Reading Group Notes with your book group.

[1] We really *mustn’t*. Those are four (reading) weeks of my life that I will never get back.

[2] ©Andy Miller

[3] ©Denise Jackson

[4] No, somehow, I have NOT read Jane Eyre. I have, however, seen the TV version (Toby Stephens makes an excellent Mr Rochester) and the 2011 film starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender. Fassbender as Rochester = swoontastic!