Life’s Too Short for …

A Proud Nation Again

When you’re nudging 70, time remaining is an unknown that affects the algebra of most decision-making. For instance, AHP* and I have been formulating a Brexit plan around the idea of moving to Scotland. We hope that Brexit will lead to Scottish independence and the new country will join the EU. We went so far as to start looking at properties on the coast near Edinburgh. Then reality kicked in. Life’s too short for that sort of upheaval, making new friends, starting new projects.

But my remaining life should be long enough to improve myself by reading the books that I have let slip by. This thought was triggered by Andy Miller’s book A Year of Reading Dangerously which has inspired me to start on my own version of his List of Betterment. I afford Miller’s book the honour of being in pole position at the start of this project.

Miller’s list started with Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita*. He includes extracts from the book’s beginning that describe a meeting in a Moscow park and a premonition of death. We follow one of the characters out of the park and into the path of a tram. Somehow the man’s head is cut off and rolls into the gutter. Miller writes: Right here is where my life changes direction. This is the moment I resolve to finish the book – a severed  head bouncing across the cobblestones.*

After finishing the book Miller concludes: The secret of The Master and Margarita which seems to speak* to countless people who know nothing about the machinations of early Stalinist dictatorship or the novel’s gestation: words are our transport, our flight and our homecoming in one.

Anthony Aloysius Hancock

Before reaching page 53, Miller introduces his second book, Middlemarch by George Eliot. His critique starts with an extract from an old episode of Hancock’s Half Hour in which our hero from East Cheam is trying to get to grips with a Bertrand Russell tome. He puts it down, exasperated, saying, “No it’s ‘im … he’s a rotten writer. A good writer should be able to put down his thoughts clearly in the simplest terms understandable to everybody.” He turns to another book and studies the cover. “Ah! That’s more like it, Lady, Don’t Fall Backwards.”

Hancock wanted readability* in his books and Miller introduces Middlemarch with Hancock because initially Miller found Eliot’s prose indigestible. However, after biting it off in manageable chunks of 50 pages at a time he learned to love it.

Middlemarch is on my List of Betterment and, when I get round to it, I’ll read it as far as page 53. If it hasn’t by then persuaded me to continue I will not continue. I make this sacrifice, dear reader so that you don’t have to. At the end of each 53-page reading I’ll give each book a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down.

Which brings me to page 53 of The Year of Reading Dangerously by which time Miller is introducing us to his next three reads: Post Office by Charles Bukowski, The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marks and Friedrich Engels and The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell. Despite this being the steeply uphill landscape ahead, Miller had already done enough to persuade me that I was in safe hands. Reader, I finished it and gave it a five-star Goodreads review.

A week that started with the blood-red, wolf-moon* and thoughts of sunshine on Leith ended with AHP and I celebrating Burns Night in Stourport. Perhaps we’re unconsciously already preparing ourselves for the move. Who knows?

  1. I have wrestled with myself over what I should call my wife of 33 years. (Married, that is, not age. I should be so lucky.) I have settled on A Higher Power.
  2. I started The Master and Margarita on my daughter’s recommendation about five years ago. My bookmark betrays the fact that I reached page 21 before giving up,
  3. My spine was tingling at this point. What were the chances that Miller’s decision was made on page 53? How eerie would it be? I immediately went to the bookcase and drew down my daughter’s copy. I flicked through to the point where the detached head vaulted the tramlines  … page 60 in her copy. Drats! (But it might have been page 53 in Miller’s edition.)
  4. Earlier Miller had written: Whether it [a book] is great in itself will depend on whether, as you turn the pages, the machine begins to hum; on whether it comes alive and talks to you. At this point I had hugged the book to my chest and voiced undying love not merely for the sentiment but also for the masterly use of a semi-colon.
  5. The 2011 Booker Prize attracted considerable opprobrium from the literary establishment for announcing that ‘readability’ would be one of the key factors when they made their decision. Ex-Poet Laureate Andrew Motion said that the Booker should not become a theatre in which a split is opened up between quality and readability; “That is a pernicious and dangerous thing.” My personal view is that life’s too short to read (or write) the “impenetrable, dark, tricky novels” that one publisher would have preferred to see on the shortlist that year.
  6. There was no way I was going to be levered out of bed at 5am on the off-chance that there would be a clear sky and the moon would be at its bloodest-red. I made the right decision, the West Midlands slumbered on oblivious under a blanket of cloud. The photos from other parts of he world were good, though.

About The Author

Robert Ronsson

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01 2019

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