on 18 November 2009
I read a review of this book and it captured my imagination. Susan Hill had been looking for her copy of Howard's End and as she struggled to locate it she realised that amongst the books on the landing there were at least a dozen that she had never read; this made her re-evaluate how she read and she decided to spend a year reading only books that were on her shelves. Like Susan I purchase many books each year, both new and second-hand, and I also borrow books from the library. I am growing increasingly aware that I am very unlikely to read all of the books that I own in my lifetime, and I was very attracted by the notion of finding out how someone else had attempted to tackle this problem.
Hill decided that she would forsake new purchases and just concentrate on her own personal library. The process of selecting the books that she would read is the main thrust of the narrative. She considers different genres of fiction and also different types of non-fiction including diaries and journals. She focuses on particular authors such as Dickens and Hardy and outlines what they meant to her. She also gives us anecdotes of her meetings with famous writers that she has personally encountered. I found the consideration of individual writers to be slightly disappointing; there weren't the insights into these writers that I was hoping for. She is nowhere near as insightful as Orwell can be or for that matter, John Cowper Powys, whose books `One Hundred Best Books' and the `Enjoyment of Literature' I find to be almost inexhaustible.
I enjoyed the atmosphere that Susan created. You get a sense of what her house in the countryside is like and there was a sense of adventure about the whole literary journey. I found the book to also be thought-provoking and I have decided that I will also avoid new purchases next year (or at least try to) and just focus on the many unread books that I own. She has certainly encouraged me to re-examine how I go about reading and how I can structure it, and that can only be a good thing. She has also brought to my attention several books that I am unfamiliar with such as `The Rector's Daughter' by F.M. Mayor. Although I was slightly disappointed with some aspects of the book, especially the rather commonplace observations about the merits or otherwise of some writers, it is a book worth reading, and any passionate reader will do well to consider how and why they read. The book is worth buying for many reasons, not the least being the fantastic paragraph which sets the scene at the end of the introductory chapter:
"The journey began in the old farmhouse where I live, surrounded by the gently rising hills and graceful trees, the ploughed and planted fields, the hedgerows and flower borders and orchards and old stone walls, the deer and birds and hedgehogs and rabbits, the foxes and badgers and moths and bees of Gloucestershire. I climbed two flights of elm-wood stairs to the top landing in search of a book, and found myself embarked on a year of travelling through the books of a lifetime."
I found myself rationing my reading of this book because I didn't want to reach the end. It is far more than a list of books Susan Hill read during the year when she decided not to buy any new ones. It is a memoir which includes fascinating insights into other authors she has met during her life in the literary sphere.
The author's love of books and reading shines out from every page and provides new authors to explore for anyone reading it. After reading Hill's thoughts on Dickens I may well give him another try as I don't think I've given his books a fair chance. There are excursions into lesser known 19th and 20th century authors as well as the classics. There are chapters on short stories and essays as well as novels and children's picture books and there is one on spiritual reading which I found truly inspiring. At the end there is a list of 40 books the author decided she could not live without - a sort of Desert Island Discs for books. But there are far more than these 40 mentioned and discussed in the text.
I did not agree with all the author's conclusions but I do agree that both Anthony Trollope and Anita Brookner are underrated as authors. The book is written in a subtle unobtrusive style which is something of a trade mark for Susan Hill. George Orwell wrote that a good writer's prose should be transparent so that the reader is unaware of reading it only aware of the message conveyed. In this book Hill achieves just that. I loved it and would recommend it to anyone who loves books and reading.
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.
Not for the occasional reader but immensely readable to a niche market ... anyone who has a real passion for books.
I absolutely adored this book!
`Howards End is on the Landing' is much more than a memoir, it is more like an informal reference book, a book that after reading from cover to cover, you will want to keep by the side of your bed for future browsing.
You will find yourself relating to Susan's dilemma of too many unread books on her shelves, caused through impulse buys and wasting time reading Internet book blogs instead of reading actual books.
Susan Hill's fascinating journey through her own books will evoke in the reader memories of times past, each short chapter is either about an author, a literary tool, a series of books or an event. The author writes in a chatty style about her life and the people she has met, giving her opinion on anything remotely book like and interspersing this with snippets of the actual books. A thoroughly enjoyable eclectic mix.
The author shows an amazing knowledge of the classics and includes many interesting stories about their authors. Susan Hill is as prolific in her reading as she is in her writing, Susan also makes an extremely interesting book critic. Whilst reading this book I frequently found that I was jotting down authors and books, wanting to read them whereas I had no previous interest.
I have read this book once, I will be reading it again devouring every single word and savouring the anecdotes (of which there are many) ... You will find yourself doing the same.
on 8 November 2009
Highly readable - my first read was in one sitting, quickly. Then - as the author exhorts - a slow read. It's honest, funny, beautifully written, and so attractively presented that it ought to appear in Christmas stockings everywhere. Above all, it will make you want to read, or re-read, the many authors and titles described.
on 31 January 2013
I found myself enthralled and irritated by this book in equal measure. Enthralling, because most of us love to have a sneaky nose at other people's bookshelves. Also, in true Susan Hill style, this is a world of autumn twilights, of lighting the fire early and drawing the curtains to curl up with a good book. The setting, as with her ghost stories is seductive, evocative. We should slow down, Hill says, we should read slowly, and this is exactly how you want to read this book. Atmosphere is everything. I am of the same generation as the author, and the book took me back to the joy of reading, to library visits, the highlight of my week, and especially to the London Library where I was an assistant for a short while in the early seventies.
It is not the name dropping that irritates me, as with some other reviewers. It's always interesting to read about literary figures, like Elizabeth Jane Howard, and the late Iris Murdoch. I think this adds a richness to the book in fact.
There is however an air of smugness, even snobbery which made me uneasy. This is on the whole, a dry list. Of course a reading list must be personal. Reading tastes are bound to differ widely, but the airy dismissal of writers like Alice Monro and Mavis Gallant is annoying. 'There is a sameness about them' she says, 'I cannot distinguish between the characters'. In fact Monro's characters leave Hill's in the shade, especially when it comes to her genre fiction. They are simply not in the same league. She appears not to read contemporary novels at all, unless forced to review their work one imagines.
I also found her horror of e-books a bit OTT. Yes, we all love a beautifully bound book to treasure on our shelves, but no one can deny the convenience of the kindle for travelling, or that moment late at night when you have nothing new to read.
I wasn't impressed by her final list. I turned the last page with the sense of a rather smug, self-satisfied person living in a narrow, idealized 1950s England.
I also agree with some other reviewers about the editing. The two halves of the book don't match, as the book runs away from its original premise and becomes a ramble.
A mixed bag altogether.
I suspect this title rather appeals to everyone who, like me, has a tottering pile of books bought long ago but never actually read lurking in their house. I tend to acquire books in magpie fashion. I'll buy them in shops and online simply because they're by a favourite author; or because they are volumes I feel I should read; or because a friend recommended them; or because (ahem) they have such a fetching cover.... Susan Hill clearly found herself in the same situation and so she decided to refrain from buying any new books for a year and instead confined herself to the unread titles she had already purchased, and which positively proliferated within the walls of her house. The result is a book about other books: old favourites and neglected gems, newly discovered delights and surprising finds. It's also a book about the joy of reading and something of a hymn to the art of book production - the importance of good quality paper, decent cover jackets, beautiful and clear typefaces. If any of this sounds tedious beyond belief then this book is clearly not for you, but if you have ever spent a pound or two more to buy a copy of a classic novel with a lovely cover or creamy paper, as opposed to a cheaper but less well thought-out edition of the same text, then this is definitely a book you'll appreciate.
Hill is an interesting, and opinionated, commentator on the classics. She doesn't especially like Jane Austen, which is a brave and bold admission, and she doesn't appear to have too much time for those heavyweight 19th century Russians. But she loves Anthony Trollope, Thomas Hardy, Graham Greene and Elizabeth Bowen. I found myself disagreeing with her on many books, but then that's part of the fun, her opinions rouse you into saying 'nonsense! Such and such is a tremendous novel!' and that's exactly as it should be. Her comments gave me several new leads for books to search out, and I enjoyed her accounts of famous authors met after lectures and book-signings, and if her selection for the forty books she couldn't live without is actually fairly conservative then, well, if it makes you think about how wild and eclectic your own list would be then that's all for the good. A great book to dip into of a winter's evening.
on 14 July 2010
Howards End is on the Landing is a short collection of essays in which Susan Hill, author of The Woman in Black, went on a search through her house to find a book--and found hundreds that she hadn't read, and dozens more that she had forgotten she owned but wanted to return to. She then resolved to read more books from her ever-growing collection, making a vow to not buy any more books (more power to her!) There were a couple of caveats: she would still accept books from publishers, for example.
The essays in this book aren't organized in any particular way, so Hill's discourses tend to be a bit random at times; but her writing style is superb, and she writes well about the books she loves and doesn't love. Be warned, however, that there's a fair amount of literary name-dropping (everything from "EM Forster once dropped a book on my foot when I was a student at King's College" to various authors she's been acquainted with over hr literary career), which sort of put me off after a while.
There are also a number of inconsistencies (her husband is a Shakespearean scholar, yet Hill dismisses other Elizabethan poets as not worthy of her time because people have never heard of them; she claims she'll never read a Richard and Judy selection, so why does she keep buying them?). Hill tends to dismiss certain types of books (fantasy, historical fiction) and Australian and Candian authors as not worthy of her time, and her tastes tend to run towards 20th century fiction for the most part. She claims that Jane Austen isn't her cup of tea (different strokes for different folks, I guess) and tends to promote authors that you might not have heard of--which is good in a way, as she's given me a number of new-to-me authors to track down; and she's also inspired me to read more from my TBR pile (she mentions FM Mayor's the Rector's Daughter, which has been on my TBR list for a while, and I've had Dorothy Sayers's The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club on my bookshelves for a long time as well).
I also wish that Hill had given us a full list of the books she read during her year--and that she'd read more from her unread pile (it's fine to revisit the books you've always loved, I do that sometimes, but surely there should also be an effort to broaden your horizons, so to speak?). Hill does give a list of the forty books she'd take with her to a desert island--the Bible, for example, or Wuthering Heights. I also wish there had been an index of the books mentioned in this one, as she mentions perhaps hundreds, either in depth or in passing. Despite my reservations about this book, I did enjoy parts of it. It's perhaps just not the best book about books there is to be had.
on 18 December 2009
I was hooked from page 1. I had heard Susan interviewed on Radio 4 and the book's concept fascinated me so much that I knew that I had to buy it. In me it has invoked a fresh new love of books (not that the old one was lacking!) - parts of the book resonate strongly with my own experiences (childhood libraries! Enid Blyton! Scarborough!) and holds the power to whisk me back years. Susan's prose is so descriptive and so evocative that I am on the Strand with her in a London Particular, I am in the London Library picking up a book from the floor, I am on the doorstep standing next to T S Eliot. It's become a personal comfort book - I can dip in and out and always find something fresh to think about. Since I first read this (and it has been re-read at least 5 times )I have thought more about books and their value to me, I have bought more books and in new genres and authors and I have gained so much more pleasure from books. HEIOTL is an absolute joy.
on 23 January 2011
The basic premise is that Ms Hill does not buy a book for a whole year, reading only what already resides on her shelves.
It's an intriguing concept, but she seems to forget about it half way through. The first half of the book is brilliant, where the author explains her reasons for doing this and describes some of the shelves and books that line her house. I really felt connected to her during this part and didn't want the book to end. Unfortunately, it loses steam half way through and turns into a rather drab collection of essays about books and other, more irrelevant, topics (like famous composers).
Around this point, she decides to list her Top Forty books for no apparent reason othe than, presumably, to take up space. That's a fine idea, but she details which Dickens books she'd choose no less than three times. It's very repetive.
Annoyingly, she name-drops other authors as frequently as possible, to the point where I'm pretty sure she's never read a book that wasn't written by somebody she knows. Where possible, she also mentions her own books.
I did enjoy it and I will be keeping it. I just enjoyed the first half A LOT more than the second.