Book Club: The Year of Reading Dangerously

Posted on 7th June 2015 by Rob Chilver
Andy Miller shows us the joy, and the danger, of reading those books you have always longed to.
Andy Miller had a job he enjoyed and a family he loved. But, horrifyingly, there was no time for reading. Despite his busy life, he still wanted to find the time read, especially all the books he had longed to dive into. They could be big names in literature, from the classics to modern greats, or the more obscure or difficult books. He even wanted to read the novels that he'd said he had read to friends and family. So on his long commute to London, he begins to explore the books he has selected for his 'List of Betterment', the titles he wanted to tick off in a year. What follows is Andy's reading adventure that takes us from The Da Vinci Code all the way to Middlemarch and more.

Read an extract from the first book below and begin his Year of Reading Dangerously.

Book  One
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail  Bulgakov
My life is nothing special.  It is every  bit as dreary as yours.

This is the drill. Every weekday morning, the alarm  wakes us at 5.45am, unless our son wakes  us earlier,  which  he sometimes – usually  – does.  He is three. When we  moved into this house a year ago, we bought a Goodman programmable radio and CD player  for the bedroom. The CD player, being cheap,  is temperamental about what it will and  will not  play.  When it works, which  it sometimes – usually  – doesn’t,   the  day  begins  with   ‘I Start Counting’, the  first track  on  Fuzzy-Felt Folk, an  arch  selection of children’s folk tunes on Trunk  Records.  (For a few weeks  after  we got the CD player,  we experimented with  alternative wake-up calls, from Sinatra, to the Stooges, to Father Abraham and  The Smurfs,  but  the fun  of choosing a different disc every night quickly  turned  into   another  chore,   one   more   obstacle between us and our  hearts’ desire  – falling asleep.)  ‘I Start Counting’ is a lilting  and  gentle song,  a scenic  shuttle-bus ride  back  to Morningtown, and  the  capricious CD player seems  to like it. So we have settled  for ‘I Start  Counting’. ‘This year, next year, sometime, never . . .’

But  on  those   mornings when the  CD  won’t  take,  the radio  kicks  in  instead. These  are  the   days  that   begin  at 5.45am not  with  a soft dawn chorus of ‘I Start  Counting’, but  with  the  brutal twin  reveille  of Farming Today at  ear- splitting  volume and  the  impatient yelling  of our  only  son, who has invariably been awake for some time. ‘Is it morning yet?’  he  enquires, over  and  over again at  the  top  of  his lungs.   We  lie  there,  shattered.  Someone somewhere is milking  a cow.
I stumble downstairs and  make  a cup of tea.  In the  time it takes  for the  kettle  to boil, I put  some  brioche  in a bowl for my son – his favourite – and swallow  a couple  of vitamin supplements, cod liver oil for dry skin, and high-strength calcium (plus  vitamin D) for bones.  The calcium  tablets  are a hangover from  a low-fat diet  I put  myself  on  four  years ago, wanting to get in shape  before Alex was born,  one  of the  side effects of which, other than dramatic weight loss, was to make  my shins ache from a real or phantom calcium deficiency. The pains soon went but the tablets have become another habit.  At that  time, my job was making me miserable.  For  too  long  I compensated by  eating  and drinking too much, wine   at  lunchtime and  beer  in  the  pub  after work,  with the  result  that for  the first  time,  in  my  early thirties, I had  become a fat man with  a big, fat face. I shed three stone  and  have  successfully  kept  the  weight off, so that now,  combined with the effects of sustained sleep deprivation, my face  is undeniably gaunt. Acquaintances who haven’t seen me for a while look concerned and wonder whether I’m  ok.  ‘Have  you  been  ill?’ they  ask.  I love  it when they  do this.

The kettle  boils. I pour  the  hot  water onto  the  Twinings organic  teabag nestled in the blue cat mug which  came from Camden market in the early 1990s, soon after my wife, Tina, and  I first started going  out,  and  which  for reasons both  of sentimentality and  size remains her  preference for the  first cup of tea of the day (While  the  mug  is blue,  the  cat itself is ginger). Sometimes I put out the mug  and bag in readiness the  night  before, sometimes I don’t.  I stir the   teabag,   pressing it  against  the  side  of  the  mug and squashing it on the bottom. Then I throw it in the  bin, pour in the  organic  semi-skimmed milk, give the  tea another stir and  put the  spoon  to  one  side so I can use  it again  in  an hour’s  time to eat half a grapefruit – another surviving component of the  low-fat diet.  Actually,  to all intents and purposes, I am still on the  low-fat  diet.  I don’t drink  beer any more  and  I rarely  eat  cakes,  chocolate, biscuits,  etc.

If reading about this  is sapping  your  spirit,  you  should try  living  it.

I take  my  wife  her  tea  in  bed.  On  a good  morning, she will be waiting  to take the  hot  cat mug  from  me,  but  some- times,  when I arrive  in  the bedroom, hot tea  in  hand, she has  gone  back  to  sleep  and  so I have  to wake  her  up  and cajole her into a sitting position. This does irritate me. I have been performing this small, uxorious duty for the last thirteen years;  surely  I am entitled to  a measure of disgruntlement that  she,  luxuriating in  precious minutes of  sweet  sleep  I have already  forgone on her behalf, cannot even be bothered to sit up?  By now,  three-year-old Alex has climbed  into  bed, though, so all slumber soon  ceases.  We lie in bed  together, our  whole  family, complete. The best minutes of the  day.

At this  point,  a fork  appears in  the  road,  depending on which  of us has to go to London today.  Tina and I both  have jobs that  permit us to work  selected days from  home. I look after  Alex  on  a  Thursday and  his  mother spends  the day with him  on  Monday. On  Tuesday,  Wednesday and  Friday, he  is in nursery from 7.30am until  5.30pm. My mother-in- law  helps  with  the  pick-ups and  drop-offs, as  well  as  the washing and  ironing. We pay  her  a small monthly retainer for these  chores,  which discreetly bumps  up her pension and helps  keep  her grandson in chocolate buttons. However, by placing  this arrangement on a financial footing,  my mother- in-law is understandably reluctant to perform any grandmotherly tasks which fall outside her remit.  We rarely arrive home after a long day at the office to discover,  to our surprise and delight, someone has baked a cake or hidden a thimble.
So one  of us goes to work  in London, sometimes two of us. If it’s me I make sure  I have  enough time  to eat  breakfast,  which  is the same  breakfast I  eat every day except Sunday – half  a grapefruit, a glass of orange juice  from  a carton, a slice of wholemeal toast  and  Marmite, and  a mug of strong  black coffee, brewed in a one-person cafétière. On Sundays I have  black coffee, warm croissants and  good strawberry jam.  After six days of abstinence, the sudden Sunday combination of sugar,  caffeine  and  pleasure propels me to a state of near-euphoria. This is usually  the most alive I feel all week.  For about half an hour, things  seem possible. (In  the  interests of full,  Patrick  Bateman-like  disclosure, here  are  the brands   which   make  up  this  breakfast. Grapefruit: Jaffa,  pink,  organic. Orange  juice: Grove  Fresh  Pure,  organic. Bread:  Kingsmill,  wholemeal, medium-sliced. Low-fat  spread:  Flora Light. Marmite: n/a.  Coffee: Percol Americano filter coffee, fairtrade, organic, strength: 4. Sundays – All-butter croissants:  Sainsbury’s, ‘Taste the  Difference’.  Jam: Bonne Maman Conserve, strawberry. I drink  the  orange juice  from  a type  of Ikea  glass called Svepa which, through a process of trial and error,  I have determined is the  perfect  size for consuming a carton of orange juice in equal measures over four successive  mornings. Then I go out  and disembowel a dog.)

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is said to have remarked that  he didn’t mind what he ate,  as  long  as it was always the same thing,  although I imagine Wittgenstein rarely,   if ever,  bagged  up  his  own  packed  lunch. If I am working in London, I always  take  the  following  with  me: a ham  sandwich, a tomato, a bag of baked  crisps and an apple,  which  I eat  at  my  desk. (‘I sometimes feel like Nietzsche  in Ecce Homo, feeling  it appropriate to give  an  account of  his dietary habits,  like  his  taste  for  “thick  oil-free cocoa”,  convinced  that   nothing that   concerns  him   could   be  entirely without interest.’ Michel Houellebecq, Public Enemies.)  If I am  having  lunch in a restaurant with  a colleague or a client,  I still make  and pack this exact combination of items and eat it twelve  hours later on the train  on  the  way  home, where it tastes absolutely desperate. Why  do I always do this?  Because  I don’t have the energy  to be bothered to think about doing something different, even though the thing  I am doing will,  I know, stick in the throat.

(FYI Mrs  Miller  skips  breakfast – tut  – and  makes  her own   sandwiches only  infrequently –  tsk  –  although she does  put  a banana in her  handbag and  keeps  a box of Oat So Simple  instant porridge in her  desk  drawer.)

One or both  of us leaves home at about 6.30am, certainly no later than 6.35am. We both  prefer  the  6.44am train,  run by Southeastern Trains. There is very little chat on the 6.44; many of the  other passengers are  asleep.  (The  7.03 lands you at Victoria at the  height of the  rush-hour crush,  while the 7.22 usually fills up by Chatham, and  its human traffic, having  had  an  extra  hour in which  to wake  up, make-up and   caffeinate, is  significantly rowdier.)  But  the  6.44am train  has its drawbacks, too. We both  travel  in fear of sitting next  to the woman who  boards the  train  at Sittingbourne and  without fail performs the same  daily manicure: finger- nails  with  emery  board  till Rainham, application of hand cream  at Gillingham, greasy massage  to Rochester. Once treatment is complete, the hands’ owner takes a power  nap, mouth agape, to Bromley South, where she leaves the train. We  refer  to  the  woman as ‘Mrs Atrixo’.  If she  sits  down next  to one  of us, we  text  the  other: ‘Eek! Atrixo!’
Our  train  arrives  in town. Then  follows  the  bus or Tube ride.  Then  work. Work lasts all day,  sometimes longer.

Meanwhile, at his nursery, my son  enjoys  a day of struc- tured and  unstructured activity  in the  company of a mixture of children and young  women – few of whom are older than eighteen and  none of whom are  older  than twenty-five. He might play with  the  Duplo™.  He might  pretend to be Doctor Who  for a while. He might tell one  of the  girls what he  got up  to  on  his  last  ‘Mummy day’.  We don’t  know for  sure because  we’re not  there. He usually  has his breakfast and his lunch and his  tea  sitting  at  a  little  table  with  some  of his friends.  Of course,  they  are only his friends  by virtue of being the  children with  whom he is obliged  to  pass much of his time (three days in every seven). They are more like colleagues than friends.  At the  end  of the  day,  they  all sit around the television, children and helpers, and  watch a video  until someone, a parent or grandparent, comes  to collect  them.

Sandwich, bath, a little more television, bed, stories, sleep. Also a telephone call from  the  parent – or  parents – who may  or may  not  get home in time  to say goodnight.

The  parental  evening  routine  follows   a  very   similar pattern, with  half a bottle of wine  and  maybe  some  cooked food,  sometimes even  cooked  from scratch. Sleep  follows swiftly  at  10pm, unless   some  detail  of  the  day  sticks in mind, some professional slight, some office skirmish to come.

That’s how  the  week  goes. Weekends and  family days are less restricted but still have  their  structures and patterns and duties  – paperwork, haircuts, the weekly shop,  visits from friends with children, long car journeys to close family. There is some  fun  but  there is little in the  way  of spontaneity. We do not  have  the  time. Then  Monday comes  around and  we start  counting all over  again.  ‘This year, next year, sometime, never . . .’

I assume we  are  happy. Certainly we  love  each  other. We  have  been working parents for  three years.  In  that time  I have,  for pleasure, read precisely  one book  – The Da Vinci Code by Dan  Brown.

It is Thursday, and  Thursday is a Daddy  day.  So we  have packed  the Wet Wipes and  a change of trouser and  after lunch the  boy and  I set off for Broadstairs.
Broadstairs is half  an  hour up  the  coast  from  where we live.  For  a  part-time child-minding parent,  it  has  several attractions to recommend it. The bay encloses  a sandy beach with swings and trampolines. There is a small, old-fashioned cinema. Along the  promenade, overlooking the  bay, lies Morelli’s famous  ice-cream parlour. And the  long walk downhill from the  station to the seafront almost  guarantees an afternoon nap  for members of the  party travelling by pushchair.

However, this is a Thursday in late November. The cinema is closed. The swings and trampolines are shrouded in winter tarpaulins and the sea is too boisterous and cold for paddling. The rain  that  greets  us at the  station thickens as we trudge into  town, facing  the  wind,  and  we  have  to shelter in the doorway of a charity shop  to  unpack the  PVC rain  cover, which  flaps  about  uncontrollably until   skewered  to  the metal  frame  of the  buggy  by ruddy red  hands – mine. No one feels much like a snooze.

In  Morelli’s,  we  are  the  only  people  eating  ice  creams. We also appear to be the only customers younger than sixty. Around us,  pensioners eke  out  their frothy coffees and  try not to make  eye-contact with me. It has been my experience over the  last  few  years  that  people  are  generally more  at ease with  the  dad and toddler combo  on TV than in reality, where it seems  to disconcert them. Is the mother dead?  Are we  witnessing an  abduction? In spring  and  summer, this place is full of life, with holidaying families and little children boogieing  in front  of the  jukebox. But today  the  view across Viking Bay has  vanished behind fogged-up windows.

We  leave  Morelli’s  and  walk  up  the  promenade to  the Charles   Dickens   museum. Hmm,   some   other  time.   But around the corner on Albion Street  is the Albion Bookshop. I yank  the  pushchair up the  steps,  holding open  the heavy door  with  one  foot,  and  once  inside  try  to  find  a  corner where we shan’t  be in anyone’s way, even  though the  shop is empty. Down  the street  a little way is another Albion Bookshop, a huge,  endearingly dingy  secondhand place  – fun  for Dad, who  could  easily lose hours in there, but  less so for three-year-old boys. So while  Alex decides  which  Mr Men  book he would  like, I browse  this shop’s smaller  selec- tion  of  titles.  There  is a  cookery   section,   a  local  interest section  – Broadstairs In Old Photographs, etc.  – and  a  Dan Brown  section,  with  his  four  novels  to  date:  The Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons and  the  other two,  and  a plenteous range   of  spin-offs  and  tie-ins:   Cracking the Da Vinci Code, Rosslyn and the Grail, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. (I am aware The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail was published long before The Da Vinci Code. The Albion  Bookshop has  since  closed  down.) On the fiction shelves,  between Maeve  Binchy and The Pilgrim’s Progress, I am surprised to find Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. I pick it up – small format, £3.99,  good value. The grinning cat on  the  front  cover (The book is orange, the  cat is black)  makes  Alex laugh,  so I take  it to the  till along  with his choice,  Mr Small.

It is time  for us to go home. On  the  long  climb back up the  hill  to  Broadstairs station, the  combination of sea  air and  ice cream  finally catches  up with  Alex and  he nods  off. We  find  the  space  on  the  train  next  to  the  disabled toilet and,  with  my son  still asleep  and  nothing to do for half an hour, I start  to read.

‘Mr Small was very small. Probably  the smallest  person you’ve  ever  seen  in your  whole  life.’

No, better  wait  till Alex  wakes  up.  I turn my  attention to the  other book.

‘At the  sunset hour of one  warm  spring  day two  men were  to be seen  at Patriarch’s Ponds  . . .’


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