Howard’s End is on the Landing by Susan Hill

Howards EndUnlike author Susan Hill I don’t live in an old rambling farmhouse with aged beams and cosy nooks from which I can look upon “gently rising hills and graceful trees”. Nor sadly do I have an elmwood staircase that could take me up to a landing with overflowing bookcases. But I do know the sensation of coming face to face with a mountain of unread books.

Climbing the stairs one day in search of a book she knew was there, Hill discovers “at least a dozen, perhaps two dozen, perhaps two hundred” that she had never read. Among them are recommendations from the Richard and Judy book club, Booker prize winners, classics, childhood annuals (charmingly she still gets The Beano every year) and an old alphabet book.  She resolves to spend a year reading only those books already on her shelves, forgoing the purchase of new ones, which, she admits, is a strange decision for someone who is both author and publisher.

I wanted to repossess my books, to explore what I had accumulated over a lifetime of reading and to map this house of many volumes. There are enough here to divert, instruct, entertain, amaze, amuse, edify, improve, enrich me for far longer than a year and every one of them deserves to be taken down and dusted off, opened and read.

We get some delightful and often surprising titbits: about the time when as an English student at King’s College London, she  devoured detective stories as light relief from Beowulf (one can understand why!). Or the unexpected encounter with EM Forster in the London Library. Having bent down to pick up the book an elderly man had dropped on his foot she looks up to find herself looking into the watery eyes of one of the grandest of the grand old men of literature. But here he was “slightly stooping and wholly unmemorable.” and yet “the wonder of the encounter has never faded.”

 

I warmed to her after reading the chapter where she recollects the magic of receiving the gift of books as a child. It was impossible to disagree with her that today, with such easy access to books, we have forgotten how special they were in our past. For Hill growing up in the 1940s they were rare treats.  Every Christmas brought annuals that she read so often she could memorise the stories but the most precious gift she remembers is her first pop up book. Some of these she still has and one of the pleasures of her year of reading from her bookshelves is going through the collection.

Over the year, Hill draws up a list of 40 titles that she thinks she “could manage with alone, for the rest of my life”. It’s absolutely not a ‘best books ever written’ type of list but ones she considers has special meaning for her. The list tells you a lot about her taste and her foibles. Trollope gets two places, as does P G Wodehouse; Dickens is there with Our Mutual Friend, Virginia Woolf with To the Lighthouse and E. M Forster (not Howard’s End surprisingly but A Passage to India).

The list is significant for its omissions. There is little in the way of European authors unless you count Dostoevsky as ‘European’ – no Zola or Camus however. The Americans are represented by Edith Wharton (the House of Mirth) and Henry James (Washington Square). Her rationale for the poetry choices tell you that she is in essence a conservative reader.  “I do not read much poetry now, and rarely anything new,” she admits. “I know I should. Should. Ought. But I don’t and that’s that. Perhaps I don’t need to. I can recite the whole of ‘The Lady of Shalott’, after all.”

She is without question a woman of firm opinions. Some I found it hard not to agree with, such as her love of the physical feel of a book (she loathes e-readers) and her aversion to the fashion for reading the “very latest book everyone is talking about.” She has little patience with people who pretend to have read certain classics or who boast about the number of books they read each week (“Why has reading turned into a form of speed dating?” she asks). Jane Austen she finds boring but considers Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower to be a masterpiece and Elizabeth Jane Howard’s work is long overdue for a re-issue.

The interjections spice up what could easily have become a pleasant but otherwise inconsequential journey through one woman’s reading preferences and habits. Hill has an edge that nicely counterbalances the sometimes whimsical tone and in her final selection of 40 has made certain to stir up debate.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on January 20, 2018, in Book Reviews, British authors, Non fiction and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 33 Comments.

  1. Read this lovely book a couple of years ago, enjoyed it, and now whenever I see the piles of books in various places in the house, including the landing, I think of this book. And of getting on with some reading. I’ve never read anything else by her, but have a couple by her husband, including a Shakespeare anthology which made his work ( Shakespeare’s, not Mr Wells’) approachable and exposed his sheer beauty for me.
    Can I just mention I just got done reading A Long, Long Way, by Sebastian Barry today, full of beautiful words. But not a comedy.

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    • I hadn’t realised until I read this book that her husband was also a writer. It’s wonderful when you suddenly find you understand much of Shakespeare’s work – I love David Crystal’s books for that reason.

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      • Haven’t read any of David Crystal’s books, though I have one on the shelf, The Story of English. I heard an audiobook of his on a hundred words in English, which effectively is a history of the language, it was wonderful. And a couple of his lectures. His son Ben performs and recites Shakespeare in the original pronunciation.
        I’m enjoying browsing your blog after I came across it yesterday when searching for the Booker and American authors business, some publishers asking that they be disallowed.

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        • it’s well worth dipping into the book you already have. there is a good little video on You Tube where he and his son talk about Shakepeare’s pronunciation and give some examples . Thanks for the comments re the blog Sandy – yes I saw the complaints from publishers that the change of Booker rules meant sales had declined

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  2. A wonderful book. I’m an admirer of her writing – less so too many of her views & opinions. I find her hard work – she isn’t kind.

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  3. A wonderful book. I’m an admirer of her writing – less so too many of her views & opinions. I find her hard work – she isn’t kind.

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  4. I do enjoy her fiction, in fact her novella’s are some of my favourites, her ability to encapsulate the transformation of a character in so few words and with such lyrical prose, is almost without equal. However something rankles in her opinion pieces, tending towards proclivity, showing a lack of diversity. This is a volume very much influenced by the English tradition and rather than merely celebrate that, she needlessly mentions those nations she has little or no intention in indulging their literature.

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  5. We’re you around the blogging world when Susan Hill maintained her own blog? Anyone who read that would have expected nothing less then decided opinions about what she (and they) were reading. I was sorry when she decided to give up.

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    • I didn’t know about her blog – a shame because it sounds something I would enjoy. Even if I didn’t agree with all her views they did have the merit of forcing me to think about my own opinion.

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  6. Well, you’ve made me want to read this book although with the expectation that I may not agree with all of the author’s opinions. I love physical books as well but I also have an ereader. I think better a book read on an ereader than not at all. Yes, reading tons of books just to boast about the number is pretty pointless but how many people actually do that? As many have said here, you can get through a lot of books if you just spend less time on other activities, such as watching mindless rubbish on TV.

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    • It’s a good read, even if you don’t agree with everything. She is a thoughtful and well-informed writer and I’ve enjoyed a number of her books – but I honestly think this is one of my favourites!

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    • I have an e-reader also. I much prefer the physical book and find I retain more info when I read that way. However, I also prefer not to have to lug a lot of heavy books around with me when I travel which is where the e-reader is invaluable.

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  7. The number of books I read in the year reflects how much study/ work I’m doing 😦 But when people exclaim that I read a lot of books (I don’t think I do compared to many bloggers), I do say that I read at times when others might be watching the tv, reading newspapers or browsing stuff on their phone (which is fine but I just don’t find those things as relaxing).

    I agree about books that are important vs ‘best books’ – one of my most important books is the Milly Molly Mandy series and The Naughtiest Girl (Blyton) series – these are the books that made me a reader and my memories of being engrossed in them are happy.

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    • I don’t watch much tv either but I do spend a lot of time on another interest of mine which is genealogy/family history – since I have got more into that this year I’ve seen the amount of time spent reading go down. I could carve out more time to read and hence read more books but that would mean sacrificing time in the gym or with friends. I suppose what I’m saying is that we each decide what our priorities are.

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  8. I love the controversy of this book. So many different opinions. I am waiting for the library to get it as I don’t want to spend $32.00 on it. 🤠🤠🤠

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  9. I enjoyed this a lot. Yes, it’s her personal choice, and that’s the fun – everyone’s rummage through their own books would bring up their own favourites and must-haves. I didn’t always agree with her either, but I enjoyed the journey!

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    • I’ll give her a lot of credit for being honest about her views despite knowing so many people would disagree to her. To say I don’t like Austen is tantamount to a declaration of war in some readers’ opinions I’m sure.

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  10. I read this last year and was a bit disappointed with it really. The blurb on the back and even the subtitle suggests that the book is about Hill reading the books she already owns over a year and since I was embarking on a similar project last year I thought it would be interesting to read about Hill’s experiences but it’s really just short essays and memoirs of books and authors that she’d read at some point in the past. I was also amazed how she only seemed to read British (and the occasional American) authors. It was ok but not of much interest to me.

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  11. I appreciate that more people are wondering why it’s a badge of honor to read more books. There’s two ways I see it, and one is especially pronounced during the 20 Books of Summer challenge. There are people who do Cathy’s challenge and brag that they’ve read not 20 books, but 50. Then I look at what they’re reading, and it’s all fluffy romance or middle grade books, for example. Should people read these books if it makes them happy? Of course! But they don’t seem to understand that reading 20 middle grade books isn’t really a challenge given the time constraints. The other aspect I wanted to mention was how often we’re not reading because we’re doing something mindless, like wasting time on social media or TV (and not all TV is mindless). I think it’s important to read an appropriate number of books based on our own situations and be aware of what may be preventing us from doing so.

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    • I agree about “what may be preventing us”. Like anything, reading is something that you make time for in your life, if it is important to you. It’s easy to think “I should be doing something more useful” or, conversely, to resort to TV because it is (often) less demanding.

      Many people surely read for the pure pleasure of doing so, and not to notch up ‘points’ or to feel that they have accomplished something by ticking another book off their list. As you get older, you realise that you are never going to read everything that you might wish to. For me, this means choosing books that appeal to me at this particular time. If I never get to finish Proust or ‘War and Peace’ – so what?

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  12. I’ve been meaning to get around to reading this for some time.

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  13. I enjoyed this but end the book wanting to hand her a pile of translated fiction .She has lived a life

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