Tuesday 26 January 2010

'Stop that! Books are dangerous.'

I seem to have been reading about 'Howards End is on the Landing' by Susan Hill all over the place, and when I picked it up from the library I was told I would not be able to renew it as there was a waiting list. I was not entirely sure what to expect but I was not disappointed. I love the way that the cover image is self-referential, being a picture of the spine of the book itself, as if it were sitting on someone's bookshelf.

The book is subtitled 'a year of reading from home', and it is a book about books, but also a very personal memoir, about how Susan Hill fell in love with literature and all the people she met along the way. She gives the reader a tour around her house, a place that sounds like the best of second hand bookshops, as she goes in search of the books she has both loved and neglected. Some authors appear to be so important to her that they get a chapter all to themselves, and at other times whole genres are covered in a couple of pages. She sets herself a challenge to finding 40 books she could not live without and ends the book with her list (which I can see becoming a blog challenge somewhere sometime soon, except it includes the Bible, which would be quite a reading challenge by itself.) I found myself wanting to go wandering round her house, to spend a few hours browsing her bookshelves and sit in one of her comfy corners with a well thumbed copy of some classic.

The book consists in places of long lists of titles or authors that she has loved. She frequently talks about having read something or other over and over, and I was left wondering how she found the time to write all the things she has written, as I am sure it would take an entire lifetime to be as well read as she appears to be. I discovered huge holes in my own reading, people I had never heard of (which I suppose is part of the point of it all) and, much to my enjoyment, several moments of 'oh yes, I so agree' when she described her reactions to or feelings about a book. I'm kind of glad that she admitted to not 'getting' Jane Austin;

"If every other book in the house was stolen and I had to spend my year reading Jane Austin only, I would either become an ardent fan, after suddenly getting the point, or I would be the one to go mad." (p.97)

... but then I was scolded for being a snob about Enid Blyton, which I did love as a child but would never have inflicted on my own children. I think she was so right to say that developing a love of reading has to start with reading what you love, no matter if it is 'pulp' fiction, only then can you become a more discerning reader. She does love books for being wonderful objects in themselves, and relishes beautifully bound and printed works, but hates the idea of 'collectors' for whom it is ownership of the item that matters, rather than ownership of the content.

"Some people who have row upon row of leather-bound books are owners of ancestral libraries in stately homes, but, although they can be very impressive to look at, these rooms of towering shelves always seem dead. Nobody would dare turn down a corner of a page or make a mark in any margin.
The Folio Society's raison d'etre is fine binding, though of a more mass produced kind .... They look good on the shelves, and the older ones are covered in real cloth which is more pleasing to handle that the synthetic of more recent titles. Yet there is something dead about them too, something too perfect, produced for display rather than use." (p.161)

And she is unrepentant in her dismissal of 'e-books':

"No one will sign an electronic book, no one can annotate in the margin, no one can leave a love letter casually between the leaves. It is true that if I had no books but only a small, flat, grey hand-held electronic device, I would only needs a very small house and how tidy that would be with just the small, flat, grey ....." (p. 77)

She passes over young children's writing rather swiftly. I could have written a whole book just like this one when my children were young; 'Six Dinner Sid is in the sandpit: a year of reading to my children'. Browsing the library or in bookshops (when I had any money that is) for new books for them was my greatest pleasure for many years. We had a set of Beatrix Potter but I *really* hated them, I found them trite and patronising, and the main pleasure the children derived was carrying them around in the little box they came in. I guess it is just the generation gap, I think maybe the 90's was a good time for young children's publishing. I think that now the market may have become a little complacent with the early literacy obsession and when I went browsing for my brother's kids for Christmas I was sorely disappointed with what I found, and ended up buying a couple of our old favourites.

Susan goes on to muse over whether books mind who they stand next to on the shelf, but I think it's just an excuse to list even more of the books she owns. What comes across is her immense passion for literature, and it is really catching when you read her. She drops names all through the books, of famous writers, poets or publishers, some she has merely encountered, others who have become lifelong friends. It reminded me of 'Any Human Heart', in which a fictional writer lives on the fringe of 'literary society' and frequently recounts his meetings with the likes of Ernest Hemmingway. But this is not an annoying trait, in fact it makes you see how much she values being part of that world. She encountered E.M. Forster in the London Library and baby-sat for Arnold Wesker's children. She meets Ian Flemming at a party and also encounters someone who used to work for the Hogarth Press with Virginia and Leonard Woolf, and has a photograph taken of them with her daughters, so that one day they can look at it, and know that it is their connection with literary history.

It is an unashamedly self-indulgent book. You really sense her pleasure in being able to share all these books with people, never in a hectoring kind of way, never making you feel like you 'ought' to have read something, always just passing on her enthusiasm, and in truth, sparking my curiosity and making me want to seek out some of the more obscure books she talks about. Books have been not only central to, but vital to, her life, what more is there to say. I was going to list her 40 books, but I think people would have more fun trying to write their own lists. You are left with the question, what books could you not live without?

"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." (p.202)

1 comment:

  1. Absolutely love this quote:-
    "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." (p.202)

    Thanks for a great review.


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