Reading From Home

There I was, moaning to blogging friends last week that I rarely get sent really enticing books to review, when one came through the post that I instantly opened and read. It’s called Howard’s End Is On The Landing; A year of reading from home by Susan Hill, and is a collection of short essays that are essentially about Hill’s ongoing love affair with books and the part they have played in her life. I was very glad to have an opportunity to try her writing in a different genre. I’ve read several of her novels but not got on particularly well with them. It’s very hard to put my finger on just what doesn’t mesh with me, but it’s to do with the unresolved darkness that seems to fascinate her. It’s almost as if she wants to get the reader up as close as possible to suffering without redeeming it or protecting them in any way. Try I’m The King of the Castle, or the first of her crime fiction novels, if you want to see what I mean. This doesn’t make her a bad writer, in fact far from it; she is an excellent stylist, and perhaps unsurprisingly, her ghost stories, notably The Woman In Black, have been huge hits. So no, she is deservedly recognized as an important author, it’s just that odd, alchemic interaction between my reading and her writing that hasn’t quite come good yet. But I thought this was the book that might do it for me.

Susan Hill was a blogger for a while and it shows in this compilation. Her essays are essentially top-notch, stylish blog posts, cutting right to the heart of the kind of things that interest book lovers, but random and digressive in their composition. There is no order to the essays, just as there is no order to the shelving of her books. She tells us how ‘A tall book shelters a small book, a huge Folio bullies a cowering line of Quartos. A child’s nursery rhyme book does not have the language in which to speak to a Latin dictionary. Chaucer does not know the words in which Henry James communicates but here they are forced to live together, forever speechless.’ The serendipity of wandering around her house, letting books speak to her, preserving the memories they unleash, remembering the people who wrote them or were associated with them, is the driving force of this collection. Susan Hill published her first novel as an 18-year-old university student, already taken under the social wing of establishment author C. P. Snow, and thereafter introduced to many other writers through her work on cultural programmes with the BBC and on judging panels for book prizes (the source of some wonderful anecdotes about the curmudgeonly behaviour of Roald Dahl). The pages here are busy with some classy reminiscences; the time when E. M Forster dropped a book on her foot in the London Library, the time she saw Iris Murdoch when she was just sinking into dementia, the abiding admiration she felt for Benjamin Britten, the last glimpse of Bruce Chatwin, suffering from AIDS, which he covered up by perpetrating the rumour that he’d been poisoned by eating a thousand-year-old egg in the depths of the Far East, the time when Elizabeth David, by contrast, turned up her nose at the food in the BBC canteen. Hill is clearly a good friend, for her loyalty and love ring true on the page, and the portraits she paints of authors, either in the flesh or known through their writings, are all singularly brilliant.

Ostensibly this is a book about Hill’s desire to not buy any books for a year, but to read the ones she already possesses. It turns out that she doesn’t mean: read the ones she hasn’t got around to yet. No, this is rather a sifting through her collection to discern the jewels among the rubble, and so when the focus shifts about two-thirds of the way through to identifying the forty books she would single out as the books to accompany her through the rest of life, this feels the more plausible and convincing intention. There is much pleasure to be had here, reading about authors that she loves and that coincide with my favourites too; we both think Penelope Fitzgerald is a genius, unjustly underrated, we both love P G Wodehouse, Anita Brookner, Dorothy L. Sayers, Nancy Mitford. There were authors here who I realized I wanted to spend more time reading – E M Forster, Iris Murdoch, Patrick Leigh Fermor, and there were unknowns to me who have now gone down on my wish list, including a book by the former Vicar of Great St Mary’s in Cambridge, Michael Maynard, who wrote a memoir of the year he was crippled by ME. These are the real bookworm delights, being introduced to new authors, or partially known authors, finding accounts of books you simply have to have, or enjoying the recognition that comes with another reader’s reminiscences on beloved narratives.

And then there were many places where we disagreed. I can sort of see why Hill’s literary imagination has not quite managed to appeal to mine. She adores Dickens and Hardy, two authors I struggle with, and is a big fan of John Carey, whose What Good Are The Arts? was a huge missed opportunity to my mind. Hill can be sharply judgemental too. She talks about ‘the rubbish available in book form’, and the ‘rubbish’ on television, whilst e-readers are anathema and: ‘Too much internet usage fragments the brain and dissipates concentration so that after a while, one’s ability to spend long, focused hours immersed in a single subject becomes blunted,’ she states with authority. Or ‘Bookplates are for posers, even when beautifully designed by real artists and engravers, though most people claim they are only there to identify the owner in case of loss. I don’t believe that. Do people put ID plates inside their handbags and wallets, or etch them on the family silver and china? Of course they don’t, and only children have name tags sewn into their clothes.’ I have to take issue with this one, as my dad, who all his adult life has had a small sideline as a printer, prints book plates for me; because he can, because we both love books, because it’s something he likes to do for me and I like him to do it. I wouldn’t have them if they didn’t come from my dad, but they are special to me because they do. I don’t expect Susan Hill thought of that possibility, so I’m not insulted. And I guess that’s just what book fanatics do, test out their ideologies against one another, seeing where they fit and where they don’t, but there’s an element of asperity to some of her commentary that may amuse some readers, and potentially irritate others.

All in all this is a fun collection of essays that are rather like a box of fudge – it’s tremendously easy to keep dipping in for some more. Unlike Hill, though, I couldn’t spend a year rereading books, however much I loved them. I’m not a great re-reader, although I wish I could be. What this book did for me, instead, was spur me on to make a list of all the authors I haven’t read – or haven’t spent sufficient time with – to tackle over the next few months. That’s what really motivates me in reading, the thought of all those pages as yet unturned, the treasures as yet still buried. This book reminded me of Anne Fadiman’s wonderful collection, Ex Libris. I have to say that Fadiman is the better essayist; I’ve yet to come across any one writing as well as she does about book lust, but for anyone who loved Ex Libris and has been searching for something similar, I would certainly recommend it.

19 thoughts on “Reading From Home

  1. Interesting. The mesh between writer and reader is so individual. I’m also not a big re-reader. I was as a kid, as are my kids. But now my time feels more limited and insufficient for all the new books I’d like to read.

  2. I like the sound of Hill’s collection of essays. I will definitely seek out a copy. I do like a book that I can nod in agreement with at some points but productively disagree with at others, as it seems you have done with this one.

  3. I’ve not read much of Susan Hill’s work (only The Woman in Black,which I really liked), but I see her name pop up on book jackets all the time recommending this or that book, so I’ve always assumed she must be quite important or popular in the current literary establishment. This sounds interesting–it’s nice with essays to be able to pick and choose what appeals most. I’ll have to keep an eye out for it as well!

  4. I love Fadiman’s essays, and really enjoy the essay format in general. I will be looking for this one, especially because I’ve been wandering among my bookstacks lately and thinking about all the books I want to re-read. Perhaps as one gets older, re-reading becomes more attractive – it’s like visiting old friends we haven’t seen in decades, and want to get reacquainted with just once more while there’s still time.

  5. Maybe when you get your list of unread authors done up, Litlove, you could post that too; I’d be very interested to see it, and inspired no doubt.

  6. I always think I’ll like those “a-year-spent-doing(or not doing)-X” memoirsm but I never end up enjoying them — after all, just because you’ve spent a year doing something doesn’t mean that you’re going to end up having any insight at all into that thing. Like you, though, I do enjoy hearing what people love to read and it seems that’s what Susan Hill really wanted to write about, so I’m glad she did!

  7. Why is it that I, who needs no encouragement whatsoever when it comes to adding book titles to the TBR tome, am drawn to such books like moth to light? This one sounds particularly interesting with all those tidbits about meeting authors.

  8. This post initially confused me as I was thinking of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle (which I see stars the pretty Romola Garai). I also couldn’t spend a year re-reading books but it’s nice to re-read here and there. I’m a bit wary of seeing your TBR list as I know that I’ll probably like quite a few of them. But I can always say No.

  9. Re: bookplates – I never used to use them, or even write my name in my books, but then I saw When Harry Met Sally , and Harry talks about getting divorced and the fights you have over whose books are whose. That horrified me so much I went straight out and bought dozens of bookplates and stuck them inside all my hardbacks, and wrote my name in pen on the title page of all my paperbacks. (I was dating someone at the time who would borrow books from me and not return them – so you can see how scary an idea it was!)

  10. This sounds like so much fun! I do love good books about books, and while it would be very hard to live up to what Anne Fadiman does, even not quite as good as Fadiman is still potentially very good.

  11. It’s interesting how we all differ, isn’t it? You say that you and Hill go your separate ways over Dickens and Hardy because she loves them and you have struggled. I split the difference. If push came to shove, I could spend the rest of my life with just Dickens’ works, but if someone suggested that I had to do that with Hardy I would probably decide that the rest of life wasn’t worth living anyway. Thank goodness there re enough books out there for all of us.

  12. i love books like this, there is something so comforting in them for me and I find they always get me excited about reading so I like to save them for when I’m in the doldrums and use them as a pick me up. I will definitely have this one handy for when the need strikes!

  13. Wonderful review, Litlove! I loved Susan’s book The Woman in Black but have had some issues with her crime fiction. This book sounds so interesting and one I’d love to add to my collection. And, while I don’t use bookplates just because I tend to weed out the shelves quite a bit, I think it’s wonderful that people do. The design and history of bookplates is actually quite interesting and how fabulous that your dad makes some for you. I’d use them too!

  14. Lilian – well those are my sentiments exactly. 🙂

    Kate – you have it just right! This is very much a nodding and disagreeing sort of book. And of course it’s interesting because you always end up doing both. Reading is so individual and so eclectic for most dedicated bookworms!

    Danielle – She turned out to have written far more novels than I’d thought! In fact, you could call her prolific. If there’s a genre called comfort essays, then this should be right in it. 🙂

    Becca – that’s a really lovely way of putting it, and absolutely in keeping with what Hill is doing. I think you’d be a good match for this book, as you clearly understand her motivation.

    JB – I am liking that idea my friend, and will certainly be providing a list in the near future.

    Bloglily – oh I know what you mean – they are so often so contrived. I could look back on my life and label passing years ‘the one I spent rushing around’ and ‘the one in which I never finish anything’ but I don’t suppose publishers would be interested in my experiences… 😉

    Emily – Don’t! I came away from it with another four or five must-read books. These books are literary dynamite, but so, so tempting!

    Pete – lol! That disquieting book of unrelieved darkness, I Capture The Castle! As if! I can see why you were confused. Shall I give you warning if I post a list to give you time to look away? 😉

    Jenny – lol! How long did the bad book borrower last? I have every possible sympathy for your motivation there. Hmm, I may well have married my husband at least in part because of his lack of interest in my books…. 😉

  15. Dorothy – absolutely! The Fadiman is perfect, there’s no getting away from it. But this is fun in its own way, and very very easy to read in a comfortable, simple pleasures way.

    Ann – thank goodness indeed! Susan Hill admits to not being able to get on with Jane Austen and Proust, too, so I don’t know how that affects the balance sheet for you? It would be a dull world if we all liked the same things, and there wouldn’t be enough library books to go round. 🙂

    Doctordi – I have tried it, because sometimes I think it would be nice to have the comfort of knowing this is a good book, and written in the right style for the moment. But I always remember what happens, and then I can’t concentrate any longer!

    Simon – I’m sure you’d enjoy it, so I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

    Stefanie – you have it just right. This is a great book for perking up one’s reading mood. I should have thought of that and left it on the shelf a bit longer to await the right moment – but I consumed it instead! 🙂 Still, maybe this is the kind of book I could reread? It’s worth a try.

    iliana – ah yes, you are someone who really would know about the history and design of book plates. The things I use that have been made for me (and here a certain notebook springs to mind) are extra special, I find. And how interesting that you had issues with the crime fiction too. But rest assured I found this a very different type of book, and easy to love.

  16. Thank you for this post. Fadiman’s Ex Libris is one of my all time favorites, so I am very interested to check out Hill’s collection. As for book plates, the line of reasoning that we don’t label other possessions kind of misses the point. One tends not to lend other possessions in the way one lends books. And for those of us who love our books, we want them back. Too easy for the lender to forget who has a particular book, and much too easy for the lendee to forget where he/she got a particular book. And horror of horrors give it away to someone else thinking he/she has the right to do so!

    (I don’t put my name in books, but would love one day to find a really nice book plate to use.)

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