Keep meaning to get round to reading the classics? Anne Miller does. So she’s gone to Andy Miller, author of The Year of Reading Dangerously, for some tips to get started.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a person who loves reading must be in possession of a huge stack of unread books. I quite like that my To Be Read pile is gradually colonising the windowsills in my flat, because there’s always something to pick up next. Each month’s enticing new titles mean the pile tends to grow more than it shrinks.
But while I’m happily ploughing through recent releases another collection is watching from their spot – The Classics.
There have been plenty I’ve loved, hated or perhaps unfairly abandoned but there are still so many more I’m yet to explore. I try not to say I’ve read things when I haven’t (university tutorials aside) but it can be tricky when someone is enthusing about a celebrated novel and there isn’t an appropriate moment to say if I haven’t actually read it. Also, if someone tells me about a book they really love then they’ve probably convinced me to read it too and I’m mentally adding it to my windowsill.
Classics are generally classics because they’re books that are loved and have been for a long time. It’s incredibly satisfying when I do finish a much-recommended tome. I love stumbling across quotations I know from elsewhere in their original context – the “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” opening from Anna Karenina or (spoiler alert) “Reader, I married him,” from Jane Eyre – and I always feel an affinity with people who’ve read Anne of Green Gables so understand why it’s important my name is spelled with an E.
Andy Miller is the author of the brilliant The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life, about rediscovering his love of reading for pleasure and tackling his list of ‘must read’ books. He held ‘Read Y’self Fitter’ events all over the country where people would pledge to read the books they’ve always meant to get round to.
For 2016, I decided to make my own Top 10 list of books to tackle. But first, I talked to Andy about tips, recommendations and what makes a classic.
(Note: Despite having very similar names, Andy and I are not related but I do wish I’d thought of his Twitter handle first – he’s @i_am_mill_i_am)
What made you decide to write The Year of Reading Dangerously?
We had a young family and I realised in the two years after my son was born, I had read precisely one book for pleasure – I’m sure this is a common problem. Also, I had a list of books I’d meant to read for years or, embarrassingly, had perhaps fibbed about having read. So taking all those things together, I wanted to reintegrate reading into my day-to-day life. And I did it!
Anna Karenina by Tolstoy, Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry, Middlemarch by George Eliot, Against Nature by Joris-Karl Huysmans, Atomised by Michel Houellebecq.
And what are your favourites that you’ve read since?
Good Morning, Midnight and Tigers Are Better-Looking by Jean Rhys, two of the bleakest, funniest and most beautiful books I have ever read. Jean Rhys is my favourite ‘new’ author; she was an extraordinary writer.
What’s on your To Read list now?
Nothing! Haha! I am just about to start writing a new book so all my reading is taken up with research at the moment. But I have just finished Finnegans Wake by James Joyce. I read 20 pages a day so it took me a month. I am only the third person I’ve ever met who’s read it all the way through. It was worth it but gosh, it was hard work.
Which books would you recommend for people who want to read the classics but don’t know where to start?
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens or Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. Full of drama, romance, mystery, action, not hard to read, not too long. Even if you read them at school, read them again!
How do you choose what to read next?
Twitter can be a strange place but I really like it as a source of book recommendation. People have just enough space in 140 characters to tell you about a book and why they loved it. And if you read their recommendation and hate it, you never have to see them again.
I really liked that list, actually. It had a good spread of books and authors and I was very happy to see Middlemarch at the top of it. And Under the Volcano. And Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf too. These aren’t necessarily easy books but they are incredibly rewarding if you put the time and effort in.
Have you spotted any patterns or qualities that make a classic a classic?
Classics are often books that caused a real stir when they were first published – with critics or the public – even if they are still a source of controversy. So, for example, American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis may now be considered a classic but I can remember how dangerous it was thought to be 25 years ago. Incidentally, American Psycho is a fantastic novel but you still need a strong stomach for it.
Have you read any books that aren’t ‘classics’ yet but you think might be in the future?
It seems likely to me that Hilary Mantel’s trilogy of Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies and the yet-to-be-published The Mirror and the Light will be considered classics, if they aren’t already. NB: I haven’t read Wolf Hall or Bring Up the Bodies. Yet.
Andy Miller is the author of The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life and host of Backlisted, the new literary podcast with the mission statement “giving new life to old books.”
Three great places for reading inspiration are the BBC’s Big Read, Hatchards’ favourite titles from the last 200 years and BBC Culture’s list of the top 100 novels as voted for by international critics. My ‘Will Actually Read’ list for 2016 is as follows:
1. Watership Down, Richard Adams
2. Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen
3. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
4. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
5. Middlemarch, George Eliot
6. Catch-22, Joseph Heller
7. On the Road, Jack Kerouac
8. Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
9. Swallows and Amazons, Arthur Ransome
10. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
Anne is a QI Elf. She has two Blue Peter badges, reached the semi-finals of Only Connect and really likes puffins. @miller_anne