Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill

Books help to form us. If you cut me open, you will find volume after volume, page after page, the contents of every one I have ever read, somehow transmuted and transformed into me. Alice in Wonderland. the Magic Faraway Tree. The Hound of the Baskervilles. The Book of Job. Bleak House. Wuthering Heights. The Complete Poems of W H Auden. The Tale of Mr Tod. Howards End. What a strange person I must be. But if the books I have read have helped to form me, then probably nobody else who ever lived has read exactly the same books, all 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.

I’d be the first to admit that I have far too many unread books on my shelves, and that I really should stop buying any more and simply read the ones I already own. It’s a subject and a challenge that turns up on many of the blogs I follow, and in fact is a subject that’s vexed a very well-known author – Susan Hill. Her book “Howards End is on the Landing” is subtitled “A year of reading from home”, which is a prospect that would simultaneously delight and horrify me!

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I first read about Hill’s book on Simon’s blog (I think!) and I know it’s turned up on others, so when I came across it in the lovely local charity shops recently, picking it up was a must. However, despite the fact that I was in the depths of several big books, I felt the draw of this one and the need to actually *finish* a book relatively quickly, and so couldn’t resist starting it.

Hill is probably best known for “The Woman in Black” but she’s also had a career in publishing and reviewing, and so the amount of books she owns are obviously prodigious. While searching for a particular volume one day, she set off musing about the books she had, how long she’d had, what they meant to her, what she owned that was read and unread, and decided to spend a year amongΒ the volumes on her shelves; a year of discovery and rediscovery. She also decided it was time to let the Internet take a back seat, and I can empathise very much with her views:

Too much Internet usage fragments the brain and dissipates concentration so that after a while, one’s ability to spend long, focused hours immersed in a single subject becomes blunted. Information comes pre-digested in small pieces, one grazes on endless ready-meals and snacks of the mind, and the result is mental malnutrition.

However, to be honest, the subtitle is a little bit of a misnomer, as the book is more a trip through Hill’s favourite books and favourite authors, laced with her memories of encounters with the late and great. And Hill has certainly had a remarkable life with a number of remarkable meetings! She bumps into T.S. Eliot; glimpses Ian Fleming at a party; interviews Kingsley Amis, and gets along with Elizabeth Jane Howard; is taken under the wing of C.P. Snow and Pamela Hansford Johnson; and listens to Auden lecture her on one of his poems.

These wonderful anecdotes spice the book and are wonderful, bringing to life some of the greats of the 20th century. However, what makes this book so compelling is Hill’s writing, her love of books, her meditations and judgements on them, and the breadth of her reading and knowledge. Bookish talk is something all of us bibliophile’s love, and as I read through this book I couldn’t help thinking how much I’d love to sit and just chat with her about my favourite authors. There are chapters on individual authors; some on types of books; and I was particularly pleased to see her championing Enid Blyton (hopefully in her pre-censorship form!)

Any book like this is going to be a personal choice, and although I often agreed with her evaluations, I didn’t always: I’ve never read V.S. Naipaul, for example, and I wouldn’t have necessarily picked his name out as one of the really greats. But on Dickens I thought she was really spot on and I cheered as she leapt to his defence (and I make no apology for quoting at length):

A perfect, flawless Dickens would somehow be a shrunken, impoverished one. Yes, he is sentimental, yet, he has purple passages, yes, his plots sometimes have dropped stitches, yes, some of his characters are quite tiresome. But his literary imagination was the greatest ever, his world of teeming life is as real as has ever been invented, his conscience, his passion for the underdog, the poor, the cheater, the humiliated are god-like. He created an array of varied, vibrant, living, breathing men and women and children that is breathtaking in its scope. His scenes are painted like those of an Old Master, in vivid colour and richness on huge canvases, His prose is spacious, symphonic, infinitely flexible. He can portray evil and create a menacing atmosphere of malevolence better than any other writer – read Little Dorrit, read Our Mutual Friend, read Bleak House if you don’t believe me. He is macabre, grotesque, moralistic, thunderous, funny, ridiculous, heartfelt. Nobody has ever written as he wrote about London, nobody has described the Essex Marshes so well, nobody has opened a book to such effect as he does in Bleak House. There is no area of life he does not illuminate, no concern or cause he does not make his own, no sentences, no descriptions, no exchanges, no sadnesses or tragedies or betrayals…

And as I read on, I’d get a sudden frisson when she mentioned one of my favourites (Calvino!) or when she told of how she grew to love Virginia Woolf’s writing. Whichever author she’s writing about, she has something to say that’s worth listening to.

Hill’s writing itself is quite lovely: evocative and reflective, she draws you into her world and her love of books and how they’ve shaped and influenced her life. “Howards End…” is eminently readable, and I found I just couldn’t put it down, wanting to read on and on to find out what bookish joy she’d be talking about next – in fact I read it in a couple of sessions. There were also some parts that were moving, particularly when she was writing of Iris Murdoch, and her decline; and references to a young man who had died (I had to go and look this up, and it seems it was Hill’s fiance, who died young).

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Susan Hill ends up producing a kind of Desert Island Discs-style list of 40 books she would take with her and I found myself surprisingly in tune with about half of it – let’s face it, everyone’s 40 books would be different. I was vaguely concerned that I would end up with a huge long list of authors to investigate but amazingly enough I’d either read many of them, or knew of them so the final list of 40 wasn’t too problematic (though it left me keen to pull my Patrick Leigh Fermor books off the shelf soon).

Reading only what we own for a year is a disciplines most bibliophile would struggled with (I certainly would!) and so Hill’s achievement is all the more impressive. “Howards End is on the Landing” is itself a glorious read; fascinating, moving and involving, and definitely one of the most enjoyable books of my year so far. Has anyone got any more suggestions for books about books????

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