Howards End is on the Landing
By Susan Hill
Profile Books, $39.99
Reviewed by Nicky Pellegrino
Some people swear off chocolate or alcohol for Lent. Others vow to get through a year without buying new clothes. British novelist Susan Hill decided to give up acquiring new books for a while. Instead she would spend an entire year reading her way through the library she has built up over a lifetime of loving literature. This book is her record of the experience. Part personal memoir, part love letter to the volumes that have been her companions for decades, it is that odd thing, a book about reading.
Hill writes about the smell of books, the look of them with their carefully chosen fonts and jackets, she writes of the way she reads and how it has affected her own writing and she tries to whittle her vast collection to a final 40 titles she could manage to survive on for the rest of her life.
There is some name dropping here and there – with Hill sure to tell us if she has chanced upon a famous writer in a library or at a literary party. But she is so starstruck by her brief encounters with Ian Fleming and EM Forster, so self-deprecating about her disastrous meeting with Edith Sitwell and so admiring of those writers she did know well, that it never feels as though she’s showing off these literary connections. If anything her thrill at knowing someone who knew Virginia Woolf is really quite sweet.
Hill tells us the story of her reading life: her childhood with Enid Blyton, the student crush on Virginia Woolf that she’s never got over, her flirtation with the angry young men of the 1950s. She admits she can’t get on with Jane Austen and revisits books and authors that have fallen out of fashion and out of print. And she ferrets out the odd little books, the ones she’s used to prop up chairs or stuffed into the back of cupboards, as she voyages through her own collection.
So why read a book about reading? Partly because Hill is giving us access to her mind, so well-steeped in literature, so fascinating, opinionated and clever. Partly because by the time you’ve finished it you’ll have amassed your own list of new books and authors you want to follow up on. But mostly because this is no dry-as-dicthwater literary critique. Hill is by turns grumpy, funny and fervent as she rambles around her book-filled Gloucestershire farmhouse sharing her thoughts and memories in a way that is entirely arbitrary, utterly idiosyncratic and always entertaining.
Nicky Pellegrino, in addition to being a succcesful author of popular fiction, (her latest The Italian Wedding was published in May this year), is also the Books Editor of the Herald on Sunday where the above review was first published on 22 November.
The Bookman shares her enthusiasm for Susan Hill's book memoir.
Susan Hill's reading of Enid Blyton as a child must have been very exhilarating for her just as it was for me, which exlains why I have written a book on the author, titled, The Famous Five: A Personal Anecdotage (www.bbotw.com).
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