Andy Miller reads dead people. He reads books written by authors who have slipped away or slipped off the radar or both.
Then he talks about them with co-host John Mitchinson on a hugely popular podcast called Backlisted.
Miller is himself the author of three books, including one that made an honest man of him after years of lying about reading some of the greatest and most famous books in the world.
It’s called The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life.
Miller tells Summer Times he and Mitchinson met at a festival and thought it would be a fun idea to do a podcast on older and overlooked books. They both greatly underestimated how much work they’d have to put into it.
“As of next week, I will have read 1000 books in five years. A 1000 books. We were fools, we got into it without knowing what would happen. But, it’s also been spectacularly good fun because we love reading and its pushed us off into areas we wouldn’t have ventured into it otherwise.
“It’s a good reminder that just because a book isn’t available in your bookshop or wasn’t published in the last couple years doesn’t mean it isn’t a good book. It just means it lost its audience after a while and it’s waiting out there for you to find it again.”
He gives the example of Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes, the reputation of which was somewhat ruined by a terrible film adaptation in the 1990s. Miller says its his all-time favourite novel.
“I had people from around the world contact me saying they’d never heard of this book, or I saw the film and it was terrible and never thought they’d read the book, but oh my goodness, what a fantastic read. Such an incredible, life-changing novel.”
Great novels being overlooked is not without precedent. The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald received bad reviews when it was published and is now considered one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. And it took 62 years for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick to sell its first edition print of 3000 copies – half of which were destroyed in a warehouse fire.
“It takes a very long time for things which are challenging or difficult to become these big important things that we think of now as classics.”
Miller quotes Ezra Pound, who said “literature is news that stays news.”
“We could read a book written a 100 years ago and it still has something to say to us today – that means its literature and it might even mean it’s a classic. And I’m a great believer that we should step outside our comfort zones and we should look to the past and we should look to things that are either famous or not so famous.”
He acknowledges it can be hard to find time to read, and hard-going or difficult novels might be a big ask for people with a busy work and family life, but suggests people find a balanced reading diet and try reading two different books at the same time.
“If you’re reading a modernist novel, something that’s going to make your brain ache a bit, then its OK to have a packet of Maltesers – a thriller or some poetry. Keep it varied, that keeps it fresh, it keeps an energy in it.”
With lockdowns and Covid-19 fears in the UK and abroad, the podcast has seen a surge in popularity and Miller says the feedback they’ve received has been incredible.
“[People have said] it’s like going to the pub with some friends or sitting in on a conversation. We always want to make it feel like you’re part of what’s going on, you could just lean in and join that conversation if you wanted to.”
And as for timely pandemic reading, Miller suggests A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe and The Corner that Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner, both of which cover the bubonic plague.
“It’s incredible how good literature fits itself around whatever your life might be at the moment. If it’s going to speak to you, it’s going to speak to you – it doesn’t matter when it was written, it doesn’t matter who wrote it or where they came from, it doesn’t matter the style – if it’s going to come and find you, it will find you.”
Andy Miller's summer reading recommendations
A Helping Hand - Celia Dale
The Hours Before Dawn - Celia Fremlin
A Small Place - Jamaica Kincaid
A Boy in the Water - Tom Gregory
The Anthill - Julianne Pachico
That Reminds Me - Derek Owusu;
The Ice Palace - Tarjei Vesaas
A Winter Book - Tove Jansson
Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was - Sjon
English Climate: Wartime Stories - Sylvia Townsend Warner
The Corner That Held Them - Sylvia Townsend Warn