Andy Miller’s engagingly therapeutic and very funny The Year of Reading Dangerously sets out to reaffirm the pleasure of the written word by casting a critical eye over all those must-read classics you never quite got around to tackling. Now his dynamic roadshow reaches out to an appropriately pumped-up public…
Thursday 29 May
To Bookseller Crow, the fantastic independent bookshop in Crystal Palace run by Jonathan Main and Justine Crow. After the shop shuts, I’ll be delivering my motivational lecture READ Y’SELF FITTER to however many people want to be shouted at by a man with a flipchart in a South London bookshop. I need two props in order to deliver the talk to full effect, the flipchart and a lectern. Jonathan tweets me in the afternoon: “Have sourced INCREDIBLE lectern.” My mind starts turning somersaults. How INCREDIBLE can a lectern be?
I don’t live in London so am staying overnight at the Crystal Palace Travelodge, which is actually situated in Penge, once a Victorian pleasure ground and the site of some famous murders, and today a rather featureless commuter suburb, the comic potential of whose name has proved irresistible to celebrated wits ranging from Spike Milligan and John Mortimer to Robert Rankin and Terry Wogan 1. The building is a Ballardian block of flats which shares space with a Nissan car dealership. My top-floor room offers stunning views over a lot of people’s trampolined back gardens. When he was researching The Modern Antiquarian, his tome about ancient stone circles and burial mounds, Julian Cope stayed exclusively in Travelodges on the basis that they were clean, functional and he didn’t have to talk to “some old biddy about her curtains”. But there aren’t any stone circles in Penge so I doubt I’m following in Cope’s footsteps here.
As I walk up the hill to Bookseller Crow, a man who may well have been drinking strong lager accosts me and points at the smart knitted tie I’m wearing.
“What do you think this is, 1958?” he asks irritably. “You weren’t even an embryo then!” I keep walking.
On arrival at the shop, I am delighted to see that Jonathan was entirely correct and that the lectern is indeed INCREDIBLE. It is the prow of a ship, presumably once part of a cocktail bar, and if I stand behind it with my arms outstretched I look nothing like Kate Winslet in Titanic.
I devised READ Y’SELF FITTER as a way of doing something more interesting – for me and the audience – than reading out loud from a book for twenty minutes and then asking for questions. I guessed there might be an audience for a discussion of great books and how to improve your bad reading habits and I was right. So far, I have delivered this talk half a dozen times and each time it has been huge fun. It works with a few people and it works with a hundred and fifty. I ask audience members to fill in a brief survey at the start, stating their name and a book they’ve always meant to read. Then I take them through a ten-step programme to cure those bad habits and at the end I pull a few slips out of the hat and get the audience to join in an affirmation to encourage that person to read War and Peace or Great Expectations or The Very Hungry Caterpillar or whatever. Tonight an audience member called Steve chooses Mein Kampf, noting that he “can’t remember the author”. “Steve,” we all shout in unison, “You will read Mein Kampf!” This, it must be said, feels like something of a Pyrrhic victory.
After the talk is over, I sell books and sign some and people want to stick around and talk about other books that they have read or not read. I really enjoy this part of the evening as all I ever really want to talk about are books anyway, with people who like books as much as I do. Even Steve buys one. “Read dangerously, Steve,” I inscribe in his copy, “but not too dangerously.”
Back at the Crystal Palace (sic.) Travelodge, I can’t sleep. At about 2 am, I think of the hilarious and devastating thing I should have said to the lager-drinking man earlier. But I don’t write it down and when I wake up I can’t remember it. When I check out of the Travelodge in the morning, it is in an open-necked shirt.
Saturday 31 May
Back home in Kent. I live by the sea and it is a beautiful sunny day. I am supposed to be writing a comment piece for the Guardian about how, in an age of distractions, we are increasingly losing the knack of reading books. I conclusively demonstrate the proof of this assertion not with words but with actions. Someone sends me a Tweet and I spend all afternoon drinking cider on the beach instead.
Sunday 1 June
A nice review of my book has appeared in the Observer from the notoriously hard-to-please Peter Conrad. “Like nothing else I have ever read,” he writes, “a combination of criticism and memoir that is astute, tender, funny and often wickedly ironic. Ignited by its love of literature, it gives in passing one of the best definitions of aesthetic excitement I have ever come across.” As a serious writer I am supposed not to set much store by reviews. But in this case, I decide to make an exception.
Meanwhile at Goodreads, someone called Helena has rated the book two stars and posted the following seven-word critique: “Lost it after the first 100 pages.” Perhaps she means she lost her copy of the book after reading only the first third? In which case the two-star rating, while proportionally accurate, seems a little unfair. It’s not my fault you misplaced it, Helena!
She doesn’t mean this, obviously. I do not set much store by reviews.
Gary from Blackwell’s Bookshop in Charing Cross Road has sent me a photograph of a table display the shop has made for my book. I am in London for a meeting so I go into the shop to have a look at it.
It’s wonderful. They’ve selected books which I really love or which loomed large in The Year of Reading Dangerously: Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry, Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel, and my favourite novel of all time, Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes.
It’s such a thrill for me to think that someone might read any of these books, especially Absolute Beginners, because of something I’ve written. It’s like a dream I might have had twenty years ago when I was a bookseller.
Wednesday 4 June
Three different people from three different areas of my life, none of whom know one another, have suggested in the last week that I watch Noah Baumbach’s recent film Frances Ha, starring Greta Gerwig. So after my son has gone to school, I unplug the phone and do so. It’s a very good movie – as one of these friends says later, “Truffaut meets Girls” – though I have to push my way past the hipsterish façade of the opening half an hour or so.
The downsides of being a freelance writer are well known. It is a perilous way to make a living and you go a bit crazy from time to time. But one of the perks is that you get to watch black-and-white films very early in the morning when you’re fresh and then have the freedom to think about them all day. I end up concluding, actually, that’s a great film, not just a good one, and it seems like a worthwhile way to have started the day. I subsequently do a lot of work and am pleased to make my son his tea when he comes home. Or as Frances says: “Sometimes it’s good to do what you’re supposed to do when you’re supposed to do it.”
Saturday 7 June
The comedian Stewart Lee will be interviewing me about Reading Dangerously at the Stoke Newington Literary Festival tonight. The event is completely sold out, something I suspect is largely down to the interviewer. As a result I am nervous, more nervous than before a solo talk. Stewart tells me he loved the book, which is why he has kindly agreed to do the interview. But it’s still a daunting prospect.
I wander up Stoke Newington High Street to see a London-themed session with Travis Elborough and Mark Mason in the upstairs room of the White Hart pub. It’s excellent. There are diary readings, funny stories about overheard conversations on buses and a little light sparring between Mark and Travis that makes the whole event feel intimate and fun. And downstairs in the bar, three different people compliment me on my smart knitted tie. This is more like it!
The increasing popularity of book festivals over the last few years is a blessing to writers and what Liz Vater and her team of volunteers have achieved here is remarkable. Five years ago, I came to the first one as a punter. It was great but it was small. Now the festival takes place across six or seven venues and attracts big names, while still feeling like it belongs to the local community. And it’s full of people who love books. Which means that when I get up on stage with Stewart an hour or so later, people listen and laugh and share their feelings about Moby Dick and Middlemarch and Julian Cope and, yes, Absolute Beginners. It’s a fantastic evening.
Sometimes it’s good to do what you’re supposed to do when you’re supposed to do it. And with the gig behind me, I am supposed to drink cider. So I do.
1 Douglas Adams and John Lloyd’s The Meaning of Liff defines Penge as “the expanding slotted arm on which a cuckoo comes out of a cuckoo clock”.
Andy Miller is a reader, author and editor of books. His writing has appeared in The Times, the Telegraph, the Guardian, the Independent, Esquire, Mojo and more. The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books (and Two Not-So-Great Ones) Saved My Life is published by Fourth Estate in hardback and eBook. His other books are Tilting at Windmills: How I Tried to Stop Worrying and Love Sport (Penguin, 2002) and 33⅓: The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society (Continuum, 2004). He lives in Kent with his wife and son. Read more.