I had a tumultuous relationship with this book. At times I loved it. And there were some quotes that really struck a chord with me. And then there were times where I really wanted to give up on it. To be honest, the only reason why I didn’t was because I knew that the disembodied spirit of Andy Miller (not a ghost, because he’s not dead, but something like a ghost) would only look down its nose pretentiously at me while I returned the unfinished book to the library. He had ranted too much about the skill of finishing books for him not to.
Let’s start with the good stuff. This book started as a project. The author realized that there were a whole bunch of books that he claimed to have read, or be familiar with, or felt very strongly that he should have read, but in reality, he had not read those books. He made a list of these books, entitled it The List of Betterment (or something similar), and then proceeded to actually read the books that he had been lying about reading. This led to many realizations about the act of reading. For instance, while seriously struggling with one book, Andy’s wife suggested that he just commit to reading 50 pages per day, and that after those 50 pages, he was allowed to put the book down. It did not matter if he was in the middle of a chapter, or a major plot point, he gave himself permission to put the book down after those 50 pages. And he found that a lot of the time, just forcing himself to read those 50 pages ended up snowballing, and allowed him to actually get into the novel. He just needed a push to get started.
One of the quotes that stuck with me was after Andy finished Middlemarch.
We live in an era where opinion is currency. The pressure is on us to say ‘I like this’ or ‘I don’t like that’, to make snap decisions and stick them on our credit cards. But when faced with something we cannot comprehend at once, which was never intended to be snapped up or whizzed through, perhaps ‘I don’t like it’ is an inadequate response. Don’t like Middlemarch? It doesn’t matter. It was here before we arrived, and it will be here long after we have gone. Instead, perhaps we should have the humility to say: I didn’t get it. I need to try harder.
Here’s the deal. The irony is not lost on me that I write blog posts sharing my opinion on books that I have read, yet I love this quote about the irrelevance of my opinions. I appreciate the attempt to put aside first impressions, and to try and see a novel in its place in the broader spectrum of literature. That being said, I did feel that, as the book went along, Andy became increasingly concerned with whether or not he should enjoy a particular novel, and tended to look down his nose at people who did not share his opinions on the importance of “great works of literature”. Just because a novel has landed itself on one person’s List of Betterment does not mean that it will have any impact on the “betterment” of someone else’s life. That’s what I love about books. Nobody reads the same book. The reader is as much a part of the creation of the story as the author. Andy hated Pride and Prejudice. He barely got through it. Pride and Prejudice is one of my favourite stories. I read Pride and Prejudice for the first time when I was 15. Andy read it for the first time when he was a working father. My Pride and Prejudice is very different than Andy’s Pride and Prejudice. But isn’t that the point of any kind of art?
And I think that Andy understood that…at least for part of his book. I mean, you would have to understand that, at least a little bit, to have written this:
Tolstoy made history when he wrote War and Peace; history is rewritten, just a little, each time one of us reads it.
But his pretentious attitude, the one that so many universities seem to hand out with their post-graduate degrees, overshadows this realization. And that’s why I only gave this book 2.5 stars. Because I felt like Andy was talking down to me. I felt like he was insulting the intelligence of his book club members who just couldn’t get on the same level as him. I felt like he had a high opinion of himself, because he had completed his List of Betterment, and that it had made him not better than who he was before, but better than other people.
I’m not trying to say that Andy Miller is pretentious. As I said, it takes two to make a reading experience. A book is created by the reader as well as the author. And this combination made for a book in need of an attitude adjustment.