Susan Hill's latest is a memoir about reading the books in her house and the stories they are associated with. At the heart of HEIOTL, as I shall abbreviate it to, is Hill's decision not to add to her house full of books for a year (except for books she is to review); to explore her collection and find new books to read in it, to re-discover lost gems and re-read favourites, and then to compile a list of the forty books she couldn't live without.
Each shelf examined brings reminiscences. There are stories about encounters with great writers and celebrated personages, who all seemed to be very supportive of the young novelist, and indeed many of them became friends. I loved all this name-dropping, and particularly enjoyed the chapter about Benjamin Britten whose 'Sea Interludes' provided an epiphany for Hill (I love them too - they were marvellous to play many years ago in Croydon Youth Philharmonic Orchestra); the story about Alan Clark was good also.
There are many discussions of writers and their books. Hill is refreshingly honest about what she doesn't enjoy reading as well as her literary loves - she's no Austenite, but reveres much of Thomas Hardy, she can't be doing with Terry Pratchett and Sci-Fi in general but did concede to liking John Wyndham but puts him in the horror pile. I was delighted that she loves Ian Fleming, John Le Carré and Michael Connelly too.
Although I haven't read him, her chapter about W.G.Sebald does make me want to read The Rings of Saturn. She writes "But so many places on a Sebald journey are eerie, deserted, out of date, and lie under a pall of dismal weather. In The Rings of Saturn he walks through East Anglia and manages to make places I know well, and have found sparkling and lively, suicidally depressing." I lived and worked for nearly two years in and around Great Yarmouth - a South Londoner fresh out of uni and mostly have never felt so lonely as then.
Then at the last pages we get to the final forty, the snapshot in time of the forty books she couldn't do without - well on that day at least, for she says she would probably pick a different 40 tomorrow. The natural extension of this is to start compiling one's own forty - but that's a project for another day ...
Every year I say I must read more books from my TBR mountains. Do I think I could do as Hill did and not buy any new books for a whole year? It would be nice, but I don't think I can. My biggest problem post-HEIOTL is the number of books I've added to my wishlist, and may have to buy/acquire, after reading it - an index would have been slightly helpful here! I love reading books about books, and this one (with its lovely cover) didn't disappoint at all.