We all have what Andy Miller calls a ‘List of Betterment’: 50 or so books that, if read, would surely make us a better person – book clubs, gulp that Pino down, and discuss. Granted, it’s tough being a bastard if your nose is always in a book. And from The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life, a memoir of 12 months spent working through a List of Betterment, it’s difficult to picture Andy Miller ever being a bastard. He’s a thoroughly amiable sort.
The reasons he decided to take drastic action with said list are simple. He explains: ‘We have been working parents for three years. In that time I have read precisely one book.’ He then sets off with The Master And Margarita, reads on through Middlemarch, stops off at The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, tears through Catch-22 and detours via A Hundred Years of Solitude. As with any journey, he ends up in a very different place to the beginning. In a year, he rediscovers what he knew so well as a lonely boy – aren’t all writers lonely children? – that reading is fun, and writing even more so.
There have been plenty of books on books that shaped lives: John Carey’s The Unexpected Professor, Rebecca Mead’s Middlemarch and Me or Hitler’s Private Library by Tim West. This is a fact-and-factoid-heavy, joke-saturated, appendix-tailed, light-hearted meander that owes more, judging from its tone and its nostalgic take on how culture shapes us, to Nick Hornby.
This List of Betterment does come with a health warning, however. Miller warns us the journey – the act of reading – and its final destination – that you might decide to produce your own masterpiece – are risky.