Jacob’s Room is Full of Books by Susan Hill

Jacob's Room is full of booksI was an enormous fan of Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill – a book all about her year of reading only books from her shelves that morphed into a series of short essays about anything and everything to do with reading. It was bookish, opinionated, and (I thought) an inevitable delight to anybody who loved reading. About that I was wrong – it divided people – but I have re-read and re-loved it, and have been waiting eagerly for the sort-of sequel for as long as I’ve known it might be a thing. Jacob’s Room is Full of Books (2017) was never in doubt as one of my Project 24 books.

I’ve been following the development of the book with interest. Ages ago, I saw Virginia Woolf is in the Kitchen listed on Amazon, and asked Susan about it on Twitter – yes, she confirmed, it was sort of a sequel to Howards End is on the Landing, but only about women writers. At one point it became Jacob’s Room is Too Full of Books, with a cover design on Amazon. Who knows when that changed, and when the title was changed, but what we’ve got instead is ‘a year of reading’ – she follows the calendar from January to December, talking about what she’s reading and what she’s thinking about, interspersed with notes on nature and life. The title doesn’t make sense (yes, Jacob’s Room is a novel by Woolf, but where Howards End is on the Landing and, indeed, Virginia Woolf is in the Kitchen can describe the place of books in the house – Jacob’s Room is Full of Books doesn’t mean anything, and will confuse anybody who doesn’t know the Woolf novel) – so, yes, it doesn’t make sense. But I don’t care. I still loved this book and raced through it in a handful of days – even while trying to savour it.

Though the calendar year structures the book, Hill darts all over the place. Sometimes for a moment merely – she throws in the thought ‘does Donald Trump ever read books?’ in a line or two – sometimes at greater length. She talks about the authors she loves, from Dickens to Ford Madox Ford to Ladybird Books. She talks about the literary scene – judging book prizes, getting into hot water in columns. She writes about the writer’s life. She writes quite a lot about things that aren’t connected with books, particularly flora and fauna. It’s wonderfully conversational and far-ranging – not as siloed as Howards End is on the Landing, but equally delightful to dip in and out of. Every page will have something to engage with. I couldn’t help picking it up and indulging when I should have been reading something for book group or the podcast. I loved it.

There are definite flaws. Hill repeats herself – the same points come up almost word-for-word at different times about (say) whether or not you can ‘catch’ a writing style – and there are silly errors (88 Charing Cross Road should have been caught – and somebody at the publishers will feel red-faced about putting an apostrophe in Howard’s [sic!] End is on the Landing on the dustjacket). Some of the paragraphs end in with that sort of trite beat that I find so frustrating in fact or fiction. This kind. To prove an argument. Perhaps.

And, yes, Hill is extremely opinionated – which is anybody’s prerogative, of course, though it is refreshing when she admits that she could be wrong about something. I can be very opinionated about books myself, but the only times it annoyed me a little were when Hill seemed to think her opinions were fact – or when she claimed that ‘nobody’ read such-and-such author. On almost every occasion, I had read that author. And this… well, gosh.

The Olivia Manning trilogies have grown in stature since they were first published – as some books do. They have already stood the test of time and I am sure they will go on doing so, while novels by many of her female contemporaries have all sunk without trace. Ivy Compton-Burnett, anyone? Kay Dick?

What a bizarre thing to say about Ivy Compton-Burnett! Not only is she (to my mind) one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, she is also in print with NYRB Classics. No mean feat, so many decades after she wrote – and hardly sinking without trace.

But this is, really, one of the things I find so beguiling and enjoyable about Jacob’s Room is Full of Books. Hill may be a little more strident than I can bring myself to be, but it’s still wonderful to hear from somebody who cares so passionately about books, who has read avidly for so long, and (incidentally – but truly incidentally) has met so many of the people she’s talking about. Some people complained that Howards End is on the Landing felt name-droppy. It didn’t to me, and this doesn’t, but perhaps others would find it so? Anyway – Hill and I do not share a taste at all, though there are overlaps. We both love Dickens and Woolf, for example. Our experiences with To The Lighthouse are so similar that I wrote ‘yes! yes! yes!’ in the margin. But there are definite divergences. She writes so enticingly about The Masters by C.P. Snow that I almost wanted to go and hunt it out – despite having read it earlier in the year and finding it one of the most boring, pointless books I’ve read in years. She – as mentioned – does not properly appreciate the genius of Ivy Compton-Burnett.

But disagreement makes bookish discussion all the more engaging. Obviously it’s not a duologue – though I suppose I could reply on Twitter or something – but it feels like a deep, thorough natter about books. I could have done with more about reading, more specifics about books, and perhaps a bit less about birds and whatnot (though plenty will welcome those seasonal variations) – but I loved what I got. Susan Hill has a strong personality, or at least a strong persona, and this book couldn’t be written by anybody else – but I hope she writes at least one more in this series. For now, I’m thrilled to be able to put this one next to Howards End is on the Landing on my books-about-books shelf.

 

16 thoughts on “Jacob’s Room is Full of Books by Susan Hill

  • October 16, 2017 at 7:23 am
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    It probably sounds bizarre, coming from a book blogger, but I’m a bit tired of these books about reading books. As you say, the interactive part of talking about books online is really very pleasurable, and unless the book’s author has some special expertise that enhances my knowledge about the book, I’d rather read and chat about it with my fellow lit-bloggers.
    Still, I enjoyed your post about it:)

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  • October 16, 2017 at 7:27 am
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    I really enjoyed Howard’s End is on the Landing. This sounds hugely readable, and I suppose all us book lovers can be opinionated (and make mistakes). I think I preferred the title Virginia Woolf is the Kitchen.

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  • October 16, 2017 at 8:47 am
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    I bought this book about 2 weeks ago having loved Howards End is on the Landing but I am not enjoying it as much. In fact, I have put it down whilst reading some others. I don’t really know why – perhaps I’ll have a better idea when I finish it.
    I do love books about books, but maybe I am reading too many of them!

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  • October 16, 2017 at 9:21 am
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    I grabbed this book as soon as I could (I did pause to pay for it…) and have so far rationed a month a day because I am enjoying it so much. Howards End… was bought for me at a particularly difficult time in my life so I have a sentimental attachment to my copy, but I must admit to finding it full of “people I have known” rather than bookish detail. I like the discursive nature of Jacob’s Room with its nature notes, even if I admit to ignorance in these matters; it is a rich book full of interest. I think that it is opinionated, and I would challenge some assertions made, but essentially I think that is part of its appeal for me as I regard it as a bit of a lecture on my hopeless addiction: books!

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  • October 16, 2017 at 11:55 am
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    Sounds like another goodie from Hill! I loved “Howard’s End…” but I can understand why people might not. But the fun of reading stuff like this can sometimes be the disagreeing – it would be boring if we all liked the same things!!

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  • October 16, 2017 at 1:04 pm
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    ICB, “sunk without trace” ? Her works have been republished in France quite recently !

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  • October 16, 2017 at 2:21 pm
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    I adored Howards End is on the Landing (read it three times so far) and am currently adoring Jacob’s Room. Trying hard not to gobble it all up at once but it’s hard not to. Like you I agree and disagree (she was scathing about Terry Pratchett in Howards End and I love him) but for me that’s part of the pleasure. And having read her The Magic Apple Tree I’m also loving all the naturey bits. Let’s cross our fingers for another bookish book.

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  • October 16, 2017 at 7:32 pm
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    I know I’m not the only reader who was really disappointed with Howard’s End is on the Landing, my expectations must have been too high, but I’ll give this one a go anyway. Thanks.

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  • October 17, 2017 at 9:06 am
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    The dust jacket on my copy doesn’t have the misplaced apostrophe so some of the jackets must have been pulled. How could 88 Charing Cross Road get past an editor or proof reader?? Love her opinionated style and she’s chased me off to read Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. I hope a Virginia Woolf in the Kitchen will appear eventually.

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  • October 17, 2017 at 10:04 pm
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    I also think Virginia Woolf is in the Kitchen is a better title. I didn’t dislike Howard’s End is on the Landing but I did want it to be more about reading and less memoir. But I now know, if that is what I want, I need to read Michael Dirda’s books which focus more on the texts.

    I am sure I will pick this book up at some point. Like you, I am a sucker for books on books.

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  • October 19, 2017 at 9:36 am
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    I liked Howards End to a point but I remember getting very cross when she disparaged people who liked to have their books organised and she made me FEEL about something she said about Iris Murdoch, but I don’t remember whether I felt all the happies or cross again. So maybe I should re-read that one before I put this on my Christmas List!

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  • October 19, 2017 at 2:28 pm
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    I loved Howards End… and Jacob’s Room is on my bedside pile already, I loved the name-dropping in HE… I suspect I’ll enjoy this one too, but a little less so. I certainly share few opinions and tastes with Hill which is probably why I want to read it!

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  • October 20, 2017 at 1:39 am
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    Sorry, I’m confused. What of Virigina Woolf…Kitchen? Which is “only” (ONLY?) about women writers. Did it become Jacob’s Room…? Or did it get shelved, so to speak?

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  • October 21, 2017 at 6:14 am
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    Your review makes me think I might pick this up after all. I find Hill so poisonous on Twitter that I had to unfollow her and it’s made me stop reading her, but I used to enjoy her, so maybe I’ll just continue to avoid her on social media and pick up this book. At the library. ;)

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  • October 23, 2017 at 5:58 pm
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    After all the false starts, how exciting that this book has finally arrived! Not in Canada, as far as I can see, but thank goodness for the Book Depository and free international shipping. It’s right at the top of my Christmas wishlist.

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  • October 24, 2017 at 11:32 pm
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    I preordered this one from Book Depository as soon as I saw it pop up as available. It arrived while I was out of town and is now patiently waiting for me to have time to curl up with it. I loved HEIOTL even though I didn’t always agree with her on authors. I, like you, love the way she confidently puts forth her opinions.

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