In The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books (and Two Not-So-Great Ones) Saved My Life, Andy Miller takes a long hard look at the books we read and the books that we say we read. Realising that the closest he has come to reading a book for pleasure since the birth of his son was Dan Brown’s the Da Vinci Code, Miller draws up a ‘list of betterment’. These are the books that he has either claimed to have read or things that he really ought to have read but never got round to.
It’s an honest look at how difficult reading can sometimes be. And life for that matter. The description of the drab reality of Miller’s daily routine that opens the book is a piece of comic writing so monotonously real it daringly goads the reader into giving up before the book has even begun. Which is precisely his own experience when of starting many of the great works on his list.
The reading experience at the other end of the day is considerably more pleasurable. As Miller settles down with his son and literally disappears into a great picture book.
‘One evening at bedtime, Alex and I were reading The Tiger Who Came to Tea. “Hey!” I said, surprised. “That’s where I grew up!’ We were looking at a double-page illustration of … a suburban English high street in the late 1960s, or early 70s, rendered as a child of those years might like to remember it. I wanted to fall into the book.’
Miller examines this unusual scene with the diligence of a transfixed child. He also sees it through the eyes of an adult who has grown to distrust the past and its easy nostalgic lure. His childhood is beckoning to him, but he’s seeing it in a new light. What is going on behind the curtains of the rooms above the shops? And what’s up with that cat and the shadowy man walking away?
‘Something is not quite right. The cat is arching its back, its tail pointing straight in the air. Is it stretching? Yawning? Perhaps it is getting ready to leap at something, or someone, hissing, claws extended – perhaps it has been disturbed by the other pedestrian. He is a curiously unsettling figure. We cannot see his face; his back is turned to us, his hat pulled down, his jacket wrapped around his shoulders as he leans into the biting wind only he can feel.’
Miller goes on to speculate about the wider subtext of the story ‘Is it about the suppression of female desire, the Tiger a wish fulfilment of the id, rampant, unleashed? Look again at the figures that walk arm-in-arm down the road. Mummy and Sophie are laughing and chatting but Daddy seems preoccupied.’
Warming to his theme we follow them into the restaurant. ‘None of them are looking at one another. Daddy holds a half-pint barrel glass of beer, but he is not drinking, and the look on his face is one of sadness, wistfulness, regret. Perhaps he blames himself for the tiger that ran amok while he was out. Or perhaps he is daydreaming the story we have just read… an irrational explanation of the life his wife and only child lead when he is not there.’
And what do we know about father, the man who has failed to protect his wife and daughter from the marauding Tiger. Where has he been all day, dressed like that? ’Daddy has not had time to get changed out of his office clothes: pork-pie hat, brown brogues, blue tartan suit, bright tie and socks…. Dressed like that, I think Daddy is either a small time gangster or working the halls.’
To complicate this analysis further, Judith Kerr explains in her memoir Creatures that Daddy is in fact two men. Her husband Nigel Kneale was too busy making science fiction for the BBC to stick around and pose for Kerr, so she asked actor friend Alfie Burke to stand in.
I wonder what the people of mumsnet would make of that? As Miller notes there are entire lengthy threads there hilariously dissecting the psychosexual drama unfolding before us.
Talking to me on twitter Andy Miller said that he thinks that this section which he wrote ‘in ten minutes flat, is probably the best bit of the book.’ He spent many hours slaving over Moby Dick and Middlemarch, but this sequence pays testament to the power of the picture book. This sense of revelation is palpable in his writing; Miller talks of ‘how you can catch something if you run fast enough. I can feel my amusement in the emerging idea.’
Although there are only two actual children’s books on his list of betterment (I Captured the Castle, and the Essential Silver Surfer), Miller takes time to rhapsodise about the books that influenced him as a child (such as The Eighteenth Emergency, Asterix and Fattypuffs and Thinifers). He is fulsome too about the current golden age of children’s books that he is enjoying with his son, ‘Michael Morpurgo, Jacqueline Wilson and Wimpy Kid; the absurd adventures of Mr Gum; Harry Potter and His Dark Materials; Varjak Paw, the mystic warrior cat; Patrick Ness and Philip Reeve…’ The children’s list of betterment goes on and on.
All of which has led me to think about the children’s books that saved my life – an enjoyably dramatic way of looking at the stories that influenced me the most and allowed me to read, and live dangerously. I’ll be sharing those over the next few months and asking some of my favourite writers and illustrators about their defining reads, beginning later this week with the aforementioned Philip Reeve. I have also drawn up my own ‘list of betterment‘ and you’ll be hearing much more about that over the next few years.