Ahead of his appearance at Wordstock, Elen Lewis speaks to Andy Miller, author of The Year of Reading Dangerously about fibbing booksellers and the importance of finishing books.
Describe your book in 26 words. Memoir, autobiography, literary criticism, true confession, exegesis, love letter, self-help guide, history lecture, comic monologue, political broadside, failed pitch for West End musical, cry for help.
What did being a bookseller teach you about writing books? Nothing. But it taught me a lot about how to categorise them.
What advice would you give to 26ers looking to write a book? For God’s sake don’t write a book that could be shelved in at least a dozen different sections in a bookshop, no one will know where to find it.
What book most surprised you during the research? War And Peace by Tolstoy. I thought it was going to be very difficult. It isn’t, it’s just very long. Fortunately it’s also very entertaining. I appreciate this sounds like hot air but seriously, it’s such an incredible book and a unique one. I can understand why people read it over and over again. It does everything.
What book did you lie about reading the most? That depends on when we’re talking about. I never really set out to deceive anyone at any point, it’s just that my appetite for books outstripped my capacity for reading them when I was young and then I fell into bad habits. When I was a bookseller – twenty years ago – you pretty much had to fib when it came to talking about some of the bestsellers. The last thing a customer wanted when they brought, say, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin to the till and asked your opinon was to say, oh I’ve read that, I thought it was absolutely rubbish. Much better to go with the flow of received opinion. So in order to my job professionally I tried not to read those books. I still haven’t. Never read Birdsong. Or Captain Corelli for that matter. Recommended them both hundreds of times, however, and never had a dissatisfied customer. QED.
By the way, I no longer lie about books and haven’t done so for nearly ten years. And that’s the truth, I swear on my unread copy of War and Peace. Oh.
What bad reading habits do we all need to stop? Well, lying about them for a start, assuming you do, which maybe you don’t. I’ve swung to the other extreme. I always tell the truth about what I’ve read and I always try to finish books now. I think you should always finish books – not a very popular thing to admit. It’s partly because, as a writer, it’s a bit galling to see someone give your book a one-star review somewhere and say they only read thirty pages or something. You know, slag the book off by all means but at least try to finish it. It took me YEARS to write the thing! Also, quite a few of the books I read for The Year of Reading Dangerously required a bit of effort and application and were written by brilliant people, a few of them geniuses. I am very much not a genius. So a lot of the time, I was learning something. You know, if you read Middlemarch and you don’t enjoy it, that probably isn’t Middlemarch’s fault. Get over yourself! I say that affectionately of course.
Just to be clear, I have actually read War and Peace.
What book do we all need to actually read? The dictionary. The English language is full of wonderful, unusual and neglected words. We use a fraction of them and seek to abbreviate the ones we do use on our phones. So yes, look up argle-bargle in the dictionary and see if you think I’m right or whether this is all just a lot of argle-bargle.
What book are you reading now? I am reading a novel called Hawthorn and Child by Keith Ridgway, which was published a few years ago and which I am currently rather perplexed by. But I don’t mind that. Perplexity is underrated. And the thing is, I might love it by the end. The pleasure lies in finding out.