29. Howards End is on the Landing – Susan Hill
I’ve teased you long enough, and now I am going to write about Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill. I’m not sure of the exact publication date, but apparently it’s already being shipped by some, er, depositories of books. So will be hitting shelves soon, if it’s not there already. As you can see, it’s gone straight into my list of 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About – though I suspect *everyone* will have heard about it before long. It’s just too good not to put into the list.
To set the tone: this is my favourite book of the year so far. It’s everything bookish and literary that you could possibly ask for – basically, if you sigh happily when glancing at the cover (which Hill herself thinks is the best one she’s ever been given) then this is the book for you.
The premise is that Susan Hill will spend a year reading only books she has on her shelves. Not just unread books, but revisiting those from the past – much-read favourites alongside ones she’s always meant to read. As she beautifully writes: ‘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.’
And so the year begins. Hill avoids spending much time on the internet – explaining the sudden disappearance of her blog – since it can ‘have a pernicious influence on reading because it is full of book-related gossip and chatter on which it is fatally easy to waste time that should be spent actually paying close, careful attention to the books themselves.’ I find this chatter wonderful, of course (for what is Stuck-in-a-Book but book-related chatter?) and a great resource for finding more books – but I think Hill’s decision is a dream a lot of us have. Wouldn’t it be lovely to retreat into our bookshelves, finally tackling those tbr piles, having everything spontaneous and undecided?
In truth, most of Howards End is on the Landing is speculative, wondering which books might be read, and remembering her experiences with them, rather than reappraisals of the re-reads and newly reads. Is this an autobiography through reading? In a way, perhaps. But it is much more embracing than that – personal anecdotes, yes (her meeting with Iris Murdoch is quietly heart-breaking), but also chapters on how books can be shelved, whether or not to write in them, what constitutes a funny book… It’s a bit like a very well-edited, and selective, blog. And I mean that as a compliment. Individual authors treated to their own chapter include Virginia Woolf, Roald Dahl, Ian Fleming, WG Sebald, Penelope Fitzgerald, Anthony Trollope… a huge range, for Susan Hill is no book snob. How cheering to hear her say:
Adults may say what they like – parents, teachers and other know-alls. Enid Blyton excited us, took us into worlds of mystery, magic, adventure and fun. Yes, her prose is bland, yes, the vocabulary is not particularly stretching. But Blyton had the secret, the knack.There are sections on diaries, e-readers (not a fan), detective fiction, and how she doesn’t like Jane Austen (intake of breath, but she keeps trying to see what’s what with Jane, and at least she’s honest…) Oh, and lots more.
Towards the end, Hill tries to decide upon the 40 books she’d read for the rest of her life, if she could have no others. I shan’t spoil her list, for the book builds up to it, but it’s a great idea for a gradual, contemplative exercise.
Above all – and I am aware that I haven’t done justice to Howards End is on the Landing, for it is impossible to put across her tone – Susan Hill has written something delightfully, wisely, enchantingly bookish. I feel I have been around her old farmhouse, with its rooms full of bookcases – I feel her surprise when she happens upon an unexpected old friend on her uncategorised shelves. Mostly, I have fallen even more deeply in love with my own books – with those which have lingered for years unread; with my own personal library as a whole.
She picks and chooses, yet is also somehow comprehensive. She writes subjectively, but – whether or not I agree with her – it feels like the last word has been spoken; the whole spectrum of opinion addressed. And Hill can be sweeping (‘Girls read more than boys, always have, always will. That’s a known fact.’) and naive (‘if [some listed Elizabethan plays] were any good we would have heard of them’) but that doesn’t seem to matter a jot. Perhaps it is her sheer love of books that make her the everywoman – or at least everyreader – even whilst having a determined set of views.
There are some books which are read reluctantly; others so addictive that they are read walking down the street. Then there are those – and this is a rare, wonderful category – that are laid aside often, because the thought of finishing them, of having no more to read, is awful. Howards End is on the Landing is in this category – what higher praise can I offer? This might only truly delight those of us who have hundreds of unread books, lists everywhere of books we intend to read. For us (and if you’ve read this far, that includes you) this is a treasure, from the pen of a like-minded friend, to which we will often, happily, joyfully, return.