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The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life by Andy Miller (And my own personal “List of Betterment”)

What makes a great book?  This is the question that Andy Miller needed to ponder as he set off on a quest (be it brave or foolish) to spend a year reading all of the the “Great Books” he always pretended to have read.  For him, even though he liked his job and loved his family, life had become full of domestic and professional monotony (“We have been working parents for three years.  In that time I had read precisely one book.” – Andy Miller) and his reading life had nearly ceased.  His commutes to work were spent with Sudoku (a bit of torture I hope never to be bored enough to subject myself to again, but to each his own) and he was looking for something that would give him the answers to the questions that he was seeking in life, to reconcile the past, present, and future, and to relieve himself of the guilt of lying about books.

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Andy Miller’s book and his “List of Betterment”

Like Miller, we all have these books in our lives; we either pretend we read them, think it would be a good idea in the distant future, or plan to avoid them altogether but expound their redeeming qualities at length, even though we are far from qualified to do so.  Even I am guilty because while I have not lied about books (that I can remember), I talk about them as if they’re old friends and hope desperately that no one asks me for specifics.

Part literary criticism, part memoir, part confession, Miller’s book offers a peek at his foray into great literature and how it changed his life.  It is either a book about nothing or a book about everything, depending on where you stand.  I don’t think any reader would disagree that the book is hilarious.  It reads like a conversation – a conversation about life and books, I might add – who could resist that???

In all honest truth, I almost abandoned the book in favour of others after about ten pages, until I saw that it met the criteria for my “Read a book about books” category of the Read Harder Challenge.  And boy, am I glad I stuck with it.  Halfway through the first chapter, he had me hooked and it was incredibly difficult to put down.  His writing is inspiring, thoughtful, funny, a bit quirky, and SUPER knowledgeable about classic books.

While I don’t agree with Miller on all points (specifically his thoughts on book clubs and book blogging, for obvious reasons), I appreciated his thoughtful and amusing recollections of working his way through his list.  He is not kind in his writing, or humble for that matter (well, he’s humble when discussing himself personally, but completely pompous when talking about books – my apologies if he were ever to read this post) and I’m sure I missed a ton of depth and humour with my piddling background knowledge about these books, authors, and – strangely enough – the German music phenomenon “Kraut-rock”.  Inspiration, however, I had in spades.

It took me back to an earlier time in my life when I just assumed, in my inexperienced youthfulness, that I would consume all of the classics worth reading – before children, jobs, and a general disillusionment with my own intellectual capacity made that a dim and fast-receding pipe dream.  You see, I have it in my head (or feel it in my gut, take your pick) that many of these classics are classics for a reason.  I mean, 150 years after Tolstoy first penned his novels, they are still being read.  They sill represent the literary equivalent of mountain climbing.  It has to be more about length and I intend to find out.  Therefore, I came up with my own list of personally neglected books.

My problem is that I am a serial procrastinator and non-finisher.  In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if a year from now this blog is a distant, red-faced memory (I hope not, but we’re all slaves to our own impluses and imperfections, aren’t we?).  Nevertheless, it wouldn’t kill me to read these books (hence my choice for the title of my list), commit to something, and finish it for a change.

So, without further ado, let me present my own “List of Betterment,” which I have chosen to call “Books It Wouldn’t Kill Me to Read”:

(* Disclaimer: My list is well over 50 books because I apparently have no literary self-control)

  1. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte (actually a reread – a good start, I think)
  2. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen (have tried and failed several times – I WILL PERSEVERE!)
  3. Middlemarch – George Eliot (well, we meet again my old University foe! Mwahaha!)
  4. A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking
  5. The Bad Beginning – Lemony Snicket
  6. Coraline – Neil Gaiman
  7. Harry Potter series – J.K. Rowling (yes, I realize that’s more than one book – I keep promising my friend I’ll read it)
  8. The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkein
  9. Animal Farm – George Orwell (read it in Uni, cannot remember it for the life of me – perhaps I never finished it…?)
  10. The Iliad – Homer
  11. The Oddysey – Homer
  12. 100 Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez (this one almost ended Andy Miller’s quest, but it’s sitting on my bookshelf, so I’ll be brave and give it a go)
  13. The Time Machine – H.G. Wells
  14. The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway (tried another Hemingway book once time and got a quarter of the way through before pronouncing it complete crap and promptly returning it to the library)
  15. The Sea, The Sea – Iris Murdoch (had never heard of this one before reading “The Year of Reading Dangerously,” but it sounds interesting.  I will NOT, however, be attempting the recipes as I know how that turned out for Mr. Miller)
  16. Bleak House – Charles Dickens (another University failure)
  17. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – Mark Twain
  18. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea – Jules Vern (impulse buy at a used bookstore that I have never touched)
  19. Halfbreed – Maria Campbell
  20. A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
  21. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
  22. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
  23. Moby Dick – Herman Melville
  24. Lord of the Flies – William Golding
  25. The Stone Angel – Margaret Laurence
  26. The Diviners – Margaret Laurence (rereading it because I can!)
  27. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood (reread)
  28. Anne of Green Gables – L.M. Montgomery
  29. Dear Life – Alice Munro
  30. Three Day Road – Joseph Boyden
  31. Green Grass, Running Water – Thomas King
  32. Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town – Stephen Leacock (reread)
  33. Traplines – Eden Robinson 
  34. The Apprenticeship of Dudley Kravitz – Mordecai Richler
  35. The Book of Negroes – Lawrence Hill
  36. The Art of War – Sun Tzu
  37. Vindication of the Rights of Women – Mary Wollstonecraft (an eighteenth century feminist text – um, YES PLEASE!)
  38. The Communist Manifesto – Karl Marx and Friedrich Engles
  39. Uncle Tom’s Cabin – Harriet Elizabeth Beecher
  40. Beloved – Toni Morrison (tried it before, am determined to finish this time)
  41. Beowulf – authors unknown
  42. Portrait of a Lady – Henry James
  43. The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R Tolkein
  44. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury (reread)
  45. Slaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut
  46. The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger
  47. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – C.S. Lewis
  48. The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
  49. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
  50. The Color Purple – Alice Walker
  51. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain (had NO ideas Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer were two different books – learn something new every day!)
  52. War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

So not all of these books are old classics, just ones I have professed wanting to read in the past.  I also added WAY more Canadian literature than Miller because…you know…when in Rome…

A final point where I dissent from Miller’s opinion would be regarding Dan Brown’s novels.  I actually enjoyed them at the time I read them, but now I may not be able to look at them anymore without seeing the glaring grammatical and factual errors Andy Miller was kind enough to spend almost an entire chapter on – thanks for that, Mr. Miller.  They’re not high literature for sure, but I’m more about appreciating books for what they are rather than deprecating them for what they are not.  On this point (and to quote Mr. Miller, kind of) “…here I stand, hands on hips, looking [him] straight in the eye” and telling him to get over humself.  And yet, in the same breath, I’ll completely contradict myself and say that I totally agree with him about the reprehensible Fifty Shades saga – what a big load of shit.

What would you put on your “List of Betterment?”  Or do you see a need for a list at all?  Do you have any thoughts on these books? (Other than DON’T DO IT! RUN! RUN! of course)

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