Saturday, 2 April 2011

"Howards End is on the Landing," by Susan Hill

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

This post is so meta that it is starting to make my head hurt. Let me see if I can get this straight. You are reading a blog, written by me, about my reaction to reading a book which has been written by an author about her experience of reading books by other authors. I think that makes sense.

I have read very little of Susan Hill's fiction. In fact, I think I have only read "Strange Meeting," which I had to study at school. I didn't enjoy it much, but I do wonder if I might appreciate it more as an adult; it is very different to read something of your own volition, than it is to be required to study it to death. With some exceptions, I think most of us probably find the books we love most through chance and choice - not through being told to read something. I have, of course, heard of "The Woman in Black," but I have not yet read it. I tried "Mrs de Winter," as I love "Rebecca," but I didn't get very far into it because I did not enjoy her writing style in the novel.

In the light of this, it might seem odd that I chose to read this book. However, after reading "Outside of a Dog," I was predisposed to enjoy reading books about books. The starting point of "Howards End is on the Landing" was Susan Hill searching her copious bookshelves for a particular book, and instead finding vast numbers of books that she either had not read, or wanted to re-read, or had plain forgotten that she owned. Thus began her project to spend a year reading from home - to eschew the library, and resist buying the latest fashionable book or Richard and Judy promotion in order to rediscover the books on her own bookshelves. This is a laudable aim, and one that I have sadly not followed. I am fully aware of the irony that I borrowed this book from the library, instead of exploring the unread books on my bookshelves.

So was it worth shunning my own books to read this? I feel rather ambivalent about this book. This is not your average person's year of reading from home. In a chapter about James Bond, she recalls being at a party and seeing an aging Ian Fleming lounging against a mantelpiece with a cocktail. In a chapter on things that fall out of books, she finds inside a book a postcard from Dirk Bogarde - which is surely not a regular occurrence for most people. I never have exciting things like that fall out of my books. Maybe a bus ticket used as a bookmark, and that is about as thrilling as it gets. So hers is a very rarified year of reading from home. At first I was fascinated by her stories of encounters with famous writers, but it did begin to pall as a kind of glorified name-dropping.

This is not a flattering reflection of my own personality, but I think I was also alienated by jealousy. Her descriptions of her big farmhouse filled with books, and of reading in her idyllic garden in the sun, primarily made me envious. The chapter when she pours scorn on e-readers made me seethe with anger. She derides ereaders as being "monotonous-looking" and "small, flat, grey," and says that if she had one she would only need a small house which would be very tidy. Coming at this from the other angle, where I don't have a seemingly endless farmhouse of books, I would stand up for my ereader: maybe if you have a small house, then you need something small, flat and grey to store your books. She is very eloquent on the pleasure of a paper book as a physical object, and I am firmly with her on this. However I read a lot - I think I might have bypassed being an avid reader and progressed straight to obsessive - and, as such, living in a smallish house with limited bookspace, I would rather have a book on something small, flat and grey than no book at all. I was slightly mollified by her chapter in which she remembers having to choose the books she bought carefully, as they had to justify themselves in terms of bookshelf space and financial outlay. So she obviously does know how that feels - I'm just not totally sure that she remembers too well what it is like.

When writing on "Outside of a Dog," I wrote that a good book about books should make you want to read more of them. And, in the midst of my ire, I did not feel that this book did that. However, now that I have calmed down a bit, I have to admit that it did. I have reserved a book by Patrick Leigh Fermor about staying in monasteries from the library after reading her recommendation. I have also got a couple of Graham Greene books from the library which she recommended - although this is also largely due to enjoying an audiobook of "Our Man in Havana" being read by the very talented and, incidentally, very sexy Jeremy Northam.

I do have a further caveat. This book was published in 2009. However, for a book written so recently, it seems to concentrate more on the classics and feature very little contemporary writing (off-hand, the only names mentioned that really spring to mind are Ian McEwan and Martin Amis). If I did a year of reading from home - which isn't such a bad idea - my year of reading from home would involve a lot more recent fiction.

It has probably become very clear that this is a very personal review of her book, coloured by my own jealousies or preconceptions, but that is in keeping with the way that she writes about books. Her approach is not overly analytical, but rests more on what the book means to her and its context in her life. I'm conscious in re-reading some of my blogs that I feel I have evolved more of sense of my own authorial voice in these posts, which I hope feels quite personal. It isn't that different from her style of writing about books - just without so much name-dropping. But if I had met W.H Auden at a party when a student and he had offered me guidance on his poetry, I sure I would have also felt that worth dropping into this blog.

She also makes a list of the forty books that she could survive on, if she was only allowed 40 books to read for the rest of her life. I have been thinking about this as well - not really coming to any conclusion yet - but I might make this list in a future post.

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