Early one autumn afternoon in pursuit of an elusive book on her shelves, Susan Hill encountered dozens of others that she had never read, or forgotten she owned, or wanted to read for a second time. The discovery inspired her to embark on a year-long voyage through her books, forsaking new purchases in order to get to know her own collection again.
A book which is left on a shelf for a decade is a dead thing, but it is also a chrysalis, packed with the potential to burst into new life. Wandering through her house that day, Hill’s eyes were opened to how much of that life was stored in her home, neglected for years. Howard’s End is on the Landing charts the journey of one of the nation’s most accomplished authors as she revisits the conversations, libraries and bookshelves of the past that have informed a lifetime of reading and writing.
After the disappointment of Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, I needed something which would encourage me more in my bookish ways (as well as reinforce my reasons to unashamedly buy more) and this one does just that. It views the personal landscape of a famous author’s reading life, in which she doesn’t buy any books for a year – something I tried once and it made me feel miserable – and focuses on the ones she has.
As well as her detailed bibliophilic thoughts, there is also talk of fonts, titles and years of accumulating books and the associated memories of where they were brought and the circumstance of the time, it’s an autobiographical insight into Hill and her influences. There are chapters about authors, genres and attitudes all with plenty of anecdotes which allows the reader to get to know her somewhat.
A litany of authors and aspects of the fine art of reading are discussed and it’s good to be reminded that spending time with one’s own carefully built collection can be as rewarding as reading from it. It seems easy sometimes to take for granted what we have and see everyday and we probably forget just how rich our lives for having them so close at hand.
There are diversity of genres (albeit, mostly fiction) and authors discussed, it’s all agreeable and amiable in its way, especially in the chapter ‘It Ain’t Broke’ which argues against the charmless e-reader. Howards End is Not on the Landing gives an excuse to hoard more books but also it’s a lament to the ones sadly abandoned or worse not read; as well as an encouragement to explore the obscurantism of books, to delve into the lesser known and pass on the gems to other lucky and voracious readers.
I came across plenty of books in these pages that I haven’t yet discovered and therein is the excitement that every reader feels when they have more treasure to delve into, it also has the added bonus of giving an insight into Hill’s style of writing and her inspirations. Yet whilst I enjoyed the book for that reason, some of Hill’s biases are annoying. It’s to be expected in such a personal book so whilst I disagree with her on some things, especially her overall dismissing of Australian and Canadian authors. These idiosyncrasies are sure to cause debate amongst readers which is always a good thing, personally I would point Hill to Patrick White’s Voss and then tell her she’s welcome.
There is a tendency also to champion certain writers whom she checks back to time and again. Whilst it’s great to enthuse about them, the book is supposed to be about the exploration of her collection and from the blurb my impression was that there would be more breadth in terms of authors and book titles. From Hill’s descriptions, hundreds of books weren’t even mentioned and that is something of a disappointment.
Whilst I enjoyed what the book did give me, there was also a keen sense of something missing, I was left wanting more about what Hill read throughout the whole year and her reaction to that literature. Yet towards the end of the book, the focus changes rather pointlessly to working out a list of only forty books she’d read for the rest of her life. That idea could have been made into a separate book, although it does prevent another intriguing diversion for the reader. I come away from the book with the feeling of having entertained thoroughly but also being left quite empty by it. Plenty of books weren’t mentioned (as you’d expect) but the scope seemed a little too narrow for me to really appreciate what she was writing about.
Devouring it quickly, the book does give me a reminder to appreciate poetry more, as well as true and joyous affirmation of our love for reading and collecting. It will probably split readers though with Hill’s opinions such as her complaining about people who read lots of books a week, presumably she assumes we all process books (including hers) in the same way which is nonsensical! That is just another part of this books charm though, no matter how infuriating it sometimes is there are many talking points that will keep you debating the manner in which you not only think about your collection but even how you store it.