Fifty Books Saved My Life: Halcyon Speaks To Andy Miller About Reading
08.04.15 / Words: Kate Menear
I enjoyed reading before I could even do it myself.
I revelled in my genius mother’s mysterious ability to decode printed shapes into rhythms, sounds and pictures for me with her mind. As I learnt how to decipher the words for myself the magic of reading wore off a little, only to be replaced by the majesty of a pastime that involved lots of sitting down, alone time and, more often than not, the presence of a bag of Quavers within arm’s reach.
Throughout school I read outside of the curriculum before studying English at university where copious classics were consumed. But recently I’ve developed something – we’ll call ‘reading lethargy’ – the symptoms of which include, but are not limited to:
Struggling to ‘get into’ a book.
Amassing a hoard of books, with the best of intentions, which you proceed to avoid the silent glare of as they gather dust on their shelves.
Lying about ‘working your way through’ said books to others and to yourself.
No longer being disgusted by your sloth-like reflection as the 14th consecutive episode of The American Office fills your laptop screen with its saccharine, comforting, warmth.
I want to return to the way things used to be but, like any waning relationship, how do you reignite that spark when you’ve been sleeping in separate bedrooms for a while now? I asked Andy Miller, author of The Year of Reading Dangerously: How fifty great books saved my life, if he had any suggestions.
I begin our discussion by suggesting that literary neglect stems from Films, TV and other media being easier to consume than novels. Andy qualifies my statement, “Easier? They’re quicker to consume.”
“You can look at a painting in a split second and you’ve seen it, you might not understand it, but you’ve seen it in a second. A film, if you’re conscientious enough to sit through the whole thing, you can watch in a couple of hours. But a book, even a book by Dan Brown, will take you hours and maybe days.
You’re spending much more time in the imaginative world of that thing. You get the opportunity to walk around in it a lot more.”
Does it matter what you read?
“The easy answer is ‘no, it doesn’t matter what you read as long as you’re reading’.
But if you only stick to one thing then you’re only going to know about one thing. Just like if all you eat is McDonald’s, you’re probably going to get scurvy.
It’s the same with reading. You have to balance your diet.”
(So, in other words, if all you read is Fifty Shades or Steven Gerrard biographies then you’re liable to get scurvy of the brain).
After speaking to Andy I challenged my mental block, picked up a book and read it cover to cover in a few days. I re-discovered that I could read Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist in the same weekend as finishing the third season of House of Cards.
That I didn’t have to forego the latest episode of the BBC’s Inside No. 9 to sit down and read in silence too. “It’s about making the time,” Andy says, “I’m not even talking about that much time.
50 pages a day, how long is that?”
It’s about slowing down a bit and choosing to connect with something a little different from the one-way engagement of watching films and TV.
“The thing I like about books is that they make you use your brain in a way other media don’t. They teach you the values of patience and solitude.”
Once you exercise these virtues you realise that the passive comfort of an epic Netflix marathon is incomparable to the experience of reading a book that commands your active attention and engagement, inviting you to live in a transitory space for a temporary time.
We agree that “A lot of people are put off books when they’re at school and I can understand that because you’re turning something into a chore.
How you feel about To Kill a Mockingbird when you’re fifteen will be different when you’re twenty-five, because you’ve been alive for a lot longer.
You’ve lived more and you’ve done more and you’re a grown up.
People should engage with books as an adult because they speak to you in a way that other things don’t. Other things will entertain you but books are unique in being able to tell you about what it’s like to be an adult.”
How would you advise people to start reading books again?
“It’s not like learning to fly a plane or ski down a mountain. All you’ve got to do is just pick one up and start reading it.”
Andy Miller is the author of ‘The Year of Reading Dangerously: How fifty great books saved my life’ (2014) - ‘The true story of the year I spent reading fifty of the greatest and most famous books in the world, and two by Dan Brown.’
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