reading danger“My life is nothing special. It is every bit as dreary as yours.”

Few of us, I suspect, have ever read as many of the classics as we feel we should have done. Maybe we even tell people that we have read them and then hope they don’t ask any difficult questions about theme or character development. I, for one, know that I have not read many of the classics, and I’ve properly enjoyed even less. Thus, while there’s a nagging feeling deep in my brain that tells me I should read Jane Austen at least once (but with the Pride & Prejudice & Zombies film out next month, I’m resigning myself to just watching that instead and letting it count), I don’t feel particularly strongly about having not read Moby-Dick or Middlemarch.

In this book, Andy Miller, editor and journalist, has started feeling guilty about all the books he claims to have read but hasn’t. He writes up a List of Betterment, originally containing twelve – and then later, fifty – books that he should read before he’s forty. Part of this is inspired by his desire to seemingly be a better person, and part of it comes from the fact that the only book he’s read in the last three years was The Da Vinci Code. That says enough.

He embarks on his journey, starting with The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, and soon rediscovers his joy of reading. He is led on a journey though some of literature’s best and worst, all the while discovering what it is about books and reading that humanity loves so much.

As a tale, it’s a bit disjointed in places. While he does read fifty(-ish) books, only some of them get a focus and there are huge sections of the list that get entirely missed out, including, unfortunately, the few on this list that I’d read (Jane Eyre, Lord of the Flies, The Dice Man, etc). The first thirteen, which includes Pride and Prejudice and Moby-Dick, but also The Sea, The Sea and The Unnamable – two I’d never even heard of – are discussed in some detail, but then he seems to look at his watch, decide that time is getting on, and so he hurries through the rest. The epilogue, oddly, is all about his love for Douglas Adams and recalls the few times they met. While I have no qualms about this – Douglas Adams is one of the finest writers who ever lived – it seems a little jarring as he hasn’t put any Adams on this list, and it doesn’t seem to have much relevance to what came before.

There’s also quite a lot of political commentary to start off with. Miller is clearly on the left – one of his first books is The Communist Manifesto – and at times it feels like he’s trying to recall his youth and make a political point about … well, something. But there’s also a lot of talk about the importance of libraries and bookshops, about how booksellers should be passionate about selling books rather than just books themselves, the perils of being in a book club, and also the difference that exists between a love of reading and a love of books. It’s funny, his comments about Dan Brown and his novels are particularly excellent, and Miller often writes with a flippancy or dry humour that is charming. He’s a nice man, I’m sure of that.

Like I said about, it’s a shame that he misses out the few I knew well, but it’s very much a personal list. I think that might make it harder to appeal to a wider audience. He doesn’t at any point, though, declare that this is the list that everyone should read, and acknowledges that some people don’t like reading (although it’s not something he – nor I – can understand). Anyone else is bound to disagree with his list of books, but then again it’s specifically ones that he has said he’s read but he hasn’t. He also only adds them to the list if he wants to read them, which makes more sense to me than people continually listing Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake on these sorts of things and snobbishly insisting that everyone must read them.

I’m not going to pretend that I’m not at least a bit of a literary snob. My dislike of Dan Brown, E L James and Stephanie Meyer are documented elsewhere, but at the end of the day I accept that we all have different tastes. I won’t read them in the same way I won’t read Tolstoy – I’m simply not interested. If anything, it’s a book that celebrates our differences, and that’s something I can’t stand against.

An interesting concept and experiment, but not one I’m in a hurry to replicate. I’ve got enough to read as it is.

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