Howards End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home
By Susan Hill
Published by Profile Books
Here’s an intriguing idea: what if you decided to not buy books for a year and just spend it catching up on all those books you’ve loved or even never read?
Howards End is on the Landing is a diary cum memoir of a writer’s efforts to do this. At first, such a book may sound dull or quaint. What can you say about books without going into details about each book? How far can you go before such a monologue becomes annoying?
It’s not an easy job, but Susan Hill manages it. Perhaps it should be expected, for Susan Hill’s reputation as a publisher (Long Barn Books) and a writer (ghost stories The Woman in Black and The Man Who Turned Into a Picture, for example) is well known in England, if not elsewhere.
Her writing is clear, concise and precise. The book is a slim one, composed of chapters usually less than five pages in length. The topics are random and diverse. They reflect Susan’s own background and her development into a professional writer, her relationship with her partner and family, her work as a presenter of BBC Radio’s Open Book radio show, her forays into publishing and her dealings with authors, many of whom she corresponded and became friends with.
There’s some interesting comments on Ian Fleming, Graham Greene, Virginia Woolf, as well as publishers, composers and poets. Like someone wandering through a bookshop and selecting items at random, I found myself reading each chapter and then the next, not knowing what I would read next. Even within each chapter the comments do engagingly meander.
Her dealings with the genre are sparse to say the least: rather predictably, she knows a few ghost story writers (M.R. James, Henry James), but the knowledge of the rest of the genre is sparse. Hill admits that she really should try more Pratchett, likes Wyndham but hasn’t read more…but otherwise seems unimpressed.
Nevertheless what is strongest throughout is that Hill likes, no loves, books. There are times when the writing borders precariously on the twee and makes a reader envy what seems to be a middle-class, comfortably well-off lifestyle, yet the love of books transcends all minor irritations.
Though the chapters are short, the range of material covered is broad. Overwhelmingly, here are lengthy passages that extol the virtues of books, the value of books and the sheer joy of owning books that many readers will identify with. (There’s also a few rather prickly and over-defensive comments about e-books too, along the way.) Her enthusiasm is infectious. There were a number of places along the way that made me want to go and read books I haven’t read in a long time: Dickens, Trollope, Proust, Tolstoy….
Many readers will, as I did, thrill about the way that books are revered here. There are comments on the importance of children’s books, on picture books, on libraries, on poetry, on re-reading old favourites, which will resonate strongly with committed bibliophiles like myself.
Putting it simply, if you love books, you will adore this book. To be honest, I didn’t agree with everything that Susan Hill says here, but there are places in this book that will leave you with total agreement, if you have ever loved reading or treasured a book. And for that reason, this book is recommended.
Mark Yon, October 2009.