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Book Review: “Howards End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home” by Susan Hill.

 

“It began like this. I went to the shelves on the landing to look for a book I knew was there. It was not. But plenty of others were and among them I noticed at least a dozen I realised I had never read.” This is how Susan Hill began her year of reading from home.

The thought of only reading the books you already own for a whole year may be daunting to some, even terrifying. Hill took the opportunity to record her experiences of doing just that. She raises many interesting, provocative points on not just literature but to the whole nature of Books and how they can influence you. Hill takes us on a literary journey through her life and she expresses many views on many authors. Whether you agree with her or not, it sets you thinking about your own book collection, your personal acquaintances with literature and the literary world.

The forgotten treasure trove and the challenge

While searching for a copy of Howards End, in the bookcase on her landing, Hill discovered many books that she would like to read. Some that she didn’t know she owned. Others that she knew she owned but never read. More that she would like to read again. She challenged herself to not buy any books for a year, just read what she found on the many bookshelves around her Gloucestershire farmhouse.

The depth of literature in her collection is beguiling, as you would expect from a successful author and publisher. Hill manages to glide between the eras, genres and authors that her books span with effortless prose, like an Autumnal breeze through a forest. She provides revealing anecdotes on the writers she has come across in her life, some glamorous, some not so. For example, when she met Ian Fleming the description is as full of style as one of Fleming’s own creations: “The beam of light falls on a man standing leaning against a fireplace. His cocktail is on the shelf beside him. In his hand there is a cigarette holder…High style.” With this captivating lead in Hill explains that sometimes, when the feeling’s right, only a James Bond book will do.

literary idols

A few chapters on we see the diversity of Susan Hill and how her book collection reflects her as a person. Presenting W. G. Sebald as “a writer who induces a most profound sense of melancholy” is a world away from the high style of Fleming. Hill talks about The Rings of Saturn and gets right to the point; and the point of Sebald in her brief synopsis: “He tells a story of an idiosyncratic man and woman which is so poignant that it turns into a sort of operatic tragedy which haunts the mind.” This may sound a little depressing, even off-putting. Hill is just taking us through part of her book collection and must feel that Sebald and his books capture a mood that is within in her at times. This point in the book makes you reflect on your own collection and brings a chilling reality to the broad range of emotions it may cover.

Hill then glides on to another prominent author. Virginia Wolf is a great influence in Hill’s life, and many other lives, and is a thread throughout the book. Again different from either Fleming or Sebald, her influence on Hill is strong. Further into the book we get an invitation to recount the time when Susan Hill decided to become a publisher and form her own company. More now than at any other time we can see the influence of one person on another even though they never met. The line: “I knew who I wanted to emulate, of course. Virginia Wolf, that practical woman who, with Leonard, decided to launch the Hogarth Press.” In this line Hill opens a raft of questions on idolisation and literature. True, Wolf was a real person, but she has become something of a legend. In the same way one may wish to live by George Orwell’s ideals or be in the middle a John Buchan thriller, Hill wanted the literary life of Wolf. The question you ask yourself from the references to Wolf is: who are my literary idols? The results may be surprising and interesting when you think about your own collection of books.

After Wolf we sail on to Thomas Hardy, “one of the greatest English novelists”. Because he such a well known author Hill skims over the detail of many of his books, but instead recounts her own experiences of reading his work. Hill’s introduction to Hardy came at school. For the best part their relationship was healthy, until Hill admits “I read Jude the Obscure and almost abandoned Hardy for ever.” This admittance underpins another good point when our relationships with books and authors are under scrutiny: “Some people find an author so congenial they can never find fault.” We all know someone who swears by a particular novelist, and we ourselves know who we love to read no matter what. It does set you thinking about the time you may have shot someone down because they declared an undying love for Jane Austen or P. G. Woodhouse. It is all part of realising your own literary tastes and respecting others.

The quietest and most constant of friends

The Book is a universal constant and our opinions are our own, but an overarching feeling of respect is present for the titles and authors we do not like or have not come across. They all have made someone fall in love with the world of Books. It is this feeling that you get when you reach the end of this particular book. I also challenge you to walk through your home and not spare a thought for the odd title here and the misplaced paperback there.

 

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