By TOBY LICHTIG
“I stand before you a sinner.”
Thus spoke Andy Miller, sombre, humble, bowed with contrition. He wasn’t the only one. There we sat before him, our heads hung low, contemplating our delinquencies, a congregation of literary penitents.
Each was handed a pencil and a small slip of paper. On this we wrote our names and the title of a book: a book we’d always meant to read but hadn’t quite got round to. A book we may even have lied about reading.
Our rehabilitation had thus begun. No more deceit and second-hand opinions, half-remembered shortcuts or self-deceptions. This was the first day of the rest of our literary lives: lives of healthy engagement and carefully acquired taste; lives of pride and action. Later, these slips would be read out in public. We would stand before our peers and admit to our lacunae, resolve to overcome them. First we had a therapy session to attend to.
Andy Miller's ten-step programme, designed to cure bad reading habits, is based on his new book The Year of Reading Dangerously (which I'll be reviewing in a future edition of the TLS). Beginning with “Choose books only for yourself” and ending with “Always tell the truth”, it is designed for those who love literature but have somehow lost their way, who believe they have read Middlemarch or Moby-Dick or The Master and Margarita by sheer dint of their enthusiasm for everything about them, only to discover that they merely own them, or thought they owned them, or once had a superb conversation about them in the pub without actually ever having opened them.
I must confess a bit of self-deception here myself. Each of these books featured in the talk but I include them simply because I myself have read them. It feels good to say so. I could instead have chosen The Communist Manifesto, The Odyssey or Wide Sargasso Sea, all of which I own, none of which I've read.
The literary dilettante Pierre Bayard has visited this territory before with his wittily disingenuous How To Talk about Books You Haven't Read, but Miller's aim is the opposite: to renounce this appalling habit for good. How To Read Books You've Merely Talked About might have been another title for his book.
Miller elected to write about the subject after he realized he'd been living a lie. Despite spending two decades immersed in literature, first as a bookseller, then as a publisher, he found he had little time for proper reading, or so he thought. Hurtling towards forty he realized there was a finite time left to enjoy the great literature he believed he would one day get round to. So he drew up a list, did nothing for two years, and then finally set to work. His method was to treat it like homework – fifty pages a day, no matter what. If he was struggling with a particular book, he struggled on. He gave up on nothing. “Always finish” is another of Miller's mantras (though I'm not sure I agree with him about this).
The event took place at the Radisson Blu Edwardian in Bloomsbury, as part of Hidden Prologues, a monthly programme of literary salon events. Around twenty-five of us were there to be chastened and entertained. Miller is an excellent speaker and he has honed his performance into a rewarding mixture of literary talk, motivational lecture and stand-up comedy routine (he's the editor of Stewart Lee, who's clearly a big influence). Along with summaries of his reading experiences, he treated us to some surreal anagrams (Herman Melville, Moby Dick becomes “Hmm, a credible milky novel”) and amusing flights of fancy, such as when he envisaged books rising up like robots against their pathetic human masters (“I see ebooks as a valuable first step”).
I'll save further comment on The Year of Reading Dangerously to the review itself, but in the spirit of Miller's project I wonder what readers of this blog would have written on that slip of paper had they been there. The evening's host, Sam Leith, chose Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities: “James Wood is always going on about how wonderful it is but I know so little about it I don’t even know what qualities the man is without”. “Sam”, we all intoned, “You will read The Man Without Qualities.” Someone else chose Strikingly Different by Gary Lineker (“I've had it on my shelf for twenty years”). I chose Tristram Shandy, which I'm pretty sure I've written about but have certainly never read.
What, gentle reader, would be your choice? If you can bring yourself to write it down then you're part of the way there. To confess here is to commit to atonement . . . .