Saturday 16 August 2014


Andy Miller & I at The Club at Cafe Royal and his chosen 'Books That Built Me'
The last Books That Built Me salon with Andy Miller, author of The Year of Reading Dangerously, went so delightfully well, I'm ashamed it's taken me so long to write the experience up. I have no excuse for my tardiness, other than reading Andy's book so rekindled my own  
 passion for books, I've have had my head stuck in a succession of novels ever since, some improving, some not so much.

Andy Miller's Books That Built Me took place, as ever, at The Club at Café Royal, which has welcomed the great and the good of London's literary set since Oscar Wilde was a regular in the Grill Room. In a lovely coincidence, I discovered Wilde (reputedly) wore Hammam Bouquet, the first scent created by Penhaligon's, who support The Books That Built Me and give the lovely fragrance libraries that guests get in their goodybags. I have a deeply superstitious side, and in the spirit of making a kind of burnt offering to the ghost of Oscar Wilde, willing him give the salon his benediction from the other side, Penhaligon's very kindly gave me Elixir candles to scent the room, a decadent contemporary take on Hammam Bouquet, all exotic spices, incense and old libraries with leather bound books.

The Year of Reading Dangerously is about a man whose life has been built of, and on, books. It's all about the beautiful truth every book lover understands: books not only have the power to open up the world, but they also have a magical ability to open up one's understanding of oneself. They heal and nourish, delight and entertain. Yet as every bibliophile will also understand, the acquisition of books is an addiction - ownership of these enchanted objects leads inevitably to a large pile of unread books reproaching one from one's bedside table - as Miller writes in The Year of Reading Dangerously

“Books, for instance. I had a lot of those. There they all were, on the shelves and on the floor, piled up by the bed and falling out of boxes. Moby-Dick, Possession, Remembrance of Things Past, the poetry of Emily Dickinson, Psychotic Reactions and Carburettor Dung, a few Pevsners, that Jim Thompson omnibus, The Child in Time, Six more Ian McEwan novels or novellas, two volumes of is short stories…. These books did furnish the room, but they also got in the way. And there were too many I was aware I had not actually read. As Schopenhauer noted a hundred and fifty years ago, ‘It would be a good thing to buy books if one could also buy the time to read them: but one usually confuses the purchase of books with the acquisition of their contents.’
These books became the focus of a need to do something. They were a reproach – wasted money, squandered time, muddled priorities. I shall make a list I thought. It will name the books I am most ashamed not to have read – difficult ones, classics, a few outstanding entries in the deceitful Miller library – and then I shall read them.”

And so he did, as you'll discover if you read his book. But for the Books That Built Me, Andy and I talked about books he had already read and loved: here are the six Books That Built Andy Miller.

1.Moominpappa at Sea

“One afternoon at the end of August, Moominpappa was walking about in his garden feeling at a loss. He had no idea what to do with himself, because it seemed everything there was to be done had already been done or was being done by somebody else” Andy says Moominpappa perfectly describes his existential angst, his innate Eyore-ishness, what one of his favourite writers, Douglas Adams, calls 'the long dark teatime of the soul'. It's "a chronicle of a mid-life crisis foretold, for readers of nine and over.” I say, Andy Miller is a lot cheerier than he believes himself to be.

2. Absolute Beginners

"Absolute Beginners gave me an exit strategy, a teenage identity I could relate and aspire to. In the process, it liberated and liberalised me – awaked in me the nervous excitement of being young, on the brink, in the same way that great pop music does." 

3. The Whitsun Weddings
I wondered if Andy had chosen The Whitsun Weddings because Larkin is another self-confessed pessimist, like Moominpappa and Andy Miller. Perhaps there's some truth in that. Andy read Larkin's Arundel Tomb - and talked about how its most famous line 'what will survive of us is love' was entirely misinterpreted by Julian Barnes in A History of The World in Ten and a Half Chapters. Bold but fair, I thought.

4. A Rebours (Against Nature)
Oh, Andy Miller, mon semblable, mon frè fabulous to discover someone else who's actually read this marvellous book. Against Nature is a now rather obscure late nineteenth century novel about Des Esseintes, a world-weary, filthy rich, fin-du-siecle French aristocrat who leaves town for an isolated country house where he can indulge in a kaleidoscope of extreme sensual experiences – he has a black feast in which everything is, he fills his house with symbolist art, he grows a garden of poisonous plants, he spends days trying to make the perfect perfume – he has exhausting sex with a lady athlete called Miss Urania – and there’s the tortoise, of course, which he encrusts with astonishing precious jewels so it can crawl exquisitely over his carpet. It expires under the weight of its beauty, logical conclusion of an aesthete's life.

Andy says it's one of the funniest books he's ever read, I say it's one of the most tragic: the truth is somewhere in between.

5. Anna Karenina 
Andy describes Anna Karenina as the perfect union of art and entertainment. I'm ashamed to admit that I'd owned a copy of Anna Karenina for nearly thirty years without ever having read it, thinking it might be enormously hard work. It isn't. I read it whilst swotting for Andy's Books That Built Me and it's every bit as miraculous as he says it is, gripping and nourishing in equal measure.

6. Tigers are Better Looking
Jean Rhys will be known to most only for her Jane Eyre prequel, The Wide Sargasso Sea, read by Andy during his reading odyssey for TYoRD - there's something immensely satisfying about discovering an author you love and then going on to read everything else they've written too.

Andy and I talking about Against Nature - in honour of the famous tortoise passage, I'm wearing Livyora's beautiful Tartarucha earrings, smoky quartz surrounded by diamonds in the shape of a tortoise
Like Andy Miller, I seemed also to have ..."forgotten the parquet floor, the boy sitting in the back seat, or stretched out on his bed on a summer’s day, lost and found in a good book… So far the List of Betterment had offered me glimpses of something bigger and better. It was up to me to keep looking for it, to push reality aside until I relocated the magic of reading." - hosting Andy's The Books That Built Me helped me completely relocate the magic of reading: for this, and for being such a marvellous and entertaining guest, I owe him quite a debt.

Guests went home with a goodybag containing a copy of Andy Miller's The Year of Reading Dangerously, a copy of Harper's Bazaar, a Penhaligon's Scent Library and a delicious bar of Prestat chocolate. 

Andy Miller's solo show 'Read Y'self Fitter', a ten step programme to cure yourself of bad reading habits (like not reading at all) is at the Chiswick Book Festival on Saturday 13th September. Tickets on sale now.
The Books That Built Me is also coming to the Chiswick Book Festival in a special salon with Sacha Wilkins of, in advance of the launch of her gorgeous book Food Friends Family:  tickets will be on sale next week.

1 comment:

westendmum said...

Must