‘I wanted to repossess my books, to explore what I had accumulated over a lifetime of reading, and to map this house of many volumes. There are enough here to divert, instruct, entertain, amaze, amuse, edify, improve, enrich me for far longer than a year and every one of them deserves to be taken down and dusted off, opened and read. A book which is left on a shelf is a dead thing but it is also a chrysalis, an inanimate object packed with the potential to burst into new life. Wandering through the house that day looking for an elusive book, my eyes were opened to how much of that life was stored here, neglected or ignored’.
Howards End is on the Landing, Susan Hill, Pg.2
I am fascinated with books – with buying books, owning books, organising books, reading books and reading books about books. Susan Hill’s wonderful work of non-fiction, Howards End is on the Landing, describes the moment when she went searching through her house for a particular novel that she knew she owned and wanted to re-read, but during this hunt she found herself – involuntarily, though no doubt fondly – on a journey through her collection. When I look through my (measly, compared to Susan Hill’s) collection of books I am immediately transported to the time and place in which I read them. For some books I can even remember the music I listened to whilst reading or outside occurrences that were going on in my life at that particular time. The book – the solid, 3D article – has the power to bring back strong memories and Susan Hill’s memoir certainly shows this process. We are taken back to Hill’s childhood, reading Charles Dickens from behind her aunt’s sofa, and her university years, where she bumps into or becomes acquainted with impressive literary figures. We also gain an insight into Hill’s own literary preferences and dislikes. I particularly related to her inability to understand the fascination with Austen (sorry to any Austen fans, its nothing personal) and her love of writing in the margins of books (I also do that).
Hill makes it clear that she abhors the new electronic devices that have produced ebooks a number of times throughout Howards End is on the Landing, and, although I own a Kindle, I can’t help but agree with her. She makes me want to throw my Kindle (which I barely use anyway) out of the window and she makes a very convincing case for doing just that:
‘I love the book. I love the feel of a book in my hands, the compactness of it, the shape, the size. I love the feel of paper. The sound it makes when I turn a page. I love the beauty of print on paper, the patterns, the shapes, the fonts. I am astonished by the versatility and practicality of The Book. It is so simple. It is so fit for its purpose. It may give me mere content, but no e-reader will ever give me that sort of added pleasure’.
Howards End is on the Landing, Susan Hill, Pg.178
However, Hill’s work is much more than a rallying cry for the traditional, reliable and enduring book. It is also a brilliant account of the tremendous and great writers she has met throughout her lifetime and an interesting look into the authors and books she values as a writer, publisher and fellow reader. I found her first-hand account of Roald Dahl fascinating and her run in with TS Eliot on the doorstep of a party they were both invited to is awe-inspiring. Yet, the numerous name-dropping is countered by Hill’s complete humbleness. The fact that she is, herself, an extremely established and talented writer, but stumbles over her words when talking to literary giants brings her down to a more human level.
Hill further explores her personal and intimate relationship with reading and books:
‘If the books I have read have helped to form me, then probably nobody else who ever lived has read exactly the same books and only the same books, as me. So just as my genes and the soul within me make me uniquely me, so I am the unique sum of the books I have read. I am my literary DNA’.
Howards End is on the Landing, Susan Hill, Pg. 202
I think this passage resonates with any book-lover. Reading is such a personal experience and everyone interprets and takes away from the same books different things. Although I enjoy reading other people’s reviews I know that my experience of reading the same books will be different (just as their’s will be different from mine) due to what I bring to a book. As Angela Carter stated, ‘you bring to a novel, anything you read, all your experience of the world. You bring your history and you read it in your own terms’ (‘The Company of Angela Carter: An Interview’). Hill effectively visualises this as ‘literary DNA’, which sums it up beautifully.
Time also plays a significant factor in our experience of reading a book. As Hill simply states:
‘Time changes the books one loves’.
Howards End is on the Landing, Susan Hill, Pg.120
Although I like the process of re-reading books to gain new insights or further meaning, there is also the risk that a second reading may not live up to first impressions. But that is sometimes the risk we take. We grow up, we change and other books will take the place of the ones we once loved. New books, new discoveries will serve our needs at particular times in our lives.
Hill’s memoir leaves us with the lasting importance that reading has had on her life. She ends with a list of the Final Forty books she couldn’t live without, and, like with any list, it is entirely subjective. However, I wouldn’t mind giving myself the challenge of reading these final forty books one day (maybe when I have completed my New Year’s resolution not to buy any new books for the first three months!):
The Final Forty:
The Book of Common Prayer (1662)
Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens
The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy
The Ballad of the Sad Café, Carson McCullers
A House for Mr Biswas, VS Naipaul
The Last September, Elizabeth Bowen
Middlemarch, George Eliot
The Way we Live Now, Anthony Trollope
The Last Chronicle of Barset, Anthony Trollope
The Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald
To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
A Passage to India, EM Forster
Washington Square, Henry James
Troylus and Criseyde, Chaucer
The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene
The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton
The Rector’s Daughter, FM Mayor
On the Black Hill, Bruce Chatwin
The Diary of Francis Kilvert
The Mating Season, PG Wodehouse
Galahad at Blandings, PG Wodehouse
The Pursuit of Love, Nancy Mitford
The Bell, Iris Murdoch
The Complete Poems of WH Auden
The Rattle Bag, Edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes
Learning to Dance, Michael Mayne
Flaubert’s Parrot, Julian Barnes
A Time to Keep Silence, Patrick Leigh Fermor
The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler
Family and Friends, Anita Brookner
Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
The Journals of Sir Walter Scott
Halfway to Heaven, Robin Bruce Lockhart
The Finn Family Moomintroll, Tove Jansson
Clayhanger, Arnold Bennett
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky
Amongst Women, John McGahern
The Four Quartets, TS Eliot