I often hold small committee meetings in my living room; eight is the maximum attendance. That’s not because it is a particularly small room, but because it is lined on all sides with bookcases (excepting the doors and window), so the useful dimensions are significantly reduced.
It’s probably a good job I don’t have a rambling farmhouse like Susan Hill’s or like her, I’d have stuffed it full of books. Yet she’s come up, in Howard’s End is on the Landing, a good idea as a result of that cornucopia – she set herself the task over a year of, if not rereading them all, then certainly revisiting them.
The result is a meandering, pleasant read – a wander through possibilities, for, she says “A book which is left on the shelf is a dead thing but it is also a chrysalis, an inanimate object packed with the potential to burst into new life.
I found it delightful and evocative, despite the fact that – the honorable exception of Dorothy L. Sayers and the other women writers of the Great Age of the English detective novel aside (and a small diversion into Elizabethan plays) – there’s very little cross-over between our libraries.
Like Hill, however, there are plenty of books that I don’t keep – and she’s delightfully practical on the subject. She writes:
Many have gone – lent or left, sold or given away, for there is nothing essentially sacred about a book just because it is printed on paper and bound between covers… You don’t read many thrillers twice. Others served a temporary practical need – your cat was having kittens and you needed to know how to look after them; you were travelling to Denmark and wanted a guide…. Pass the thriller to a friend, give the cat book to the charity shop, sell the guide to Denmark on eBay. You don’’t have to pay its ren t just because it is a book.
But there’s a lot more to Howard’s End is on the Landing than books: it’s also a story of decades of London literary life. I can only envy Hill’s early introduction to the London Library (a delight I’ve only relatively recently enjoyed – and with my own cash) and her enjoyment of its celebrities (something I miss out on since I’m usually dashing in and out).
And the list of stellar figures she’s met, from W.H. Auden to Elizabeth Jane Howard, might not quite cover the literary firmament, but it comes close.
Hill is also a publisher, and she brings her acerbic eye to the industry:
Small hardbacked books bought in the run-up to Christmas or Valentine’s or Mother’s Day are non-books. They are about Everything Being Rubbish or how to microwave a budgerigar or where to go before you die, or why Slough is the armpit of the universe; they are little anthologies of love poems or things read at funerals or cartoons about politicians. Non-books breed too. Books about Everything Being Rubbish breed others the same or, contrarwise, books about Everyth Being Wonderful; old-fashioned recipes from Grandma’s kitchen freed Grandpa’s allotment tips.
And if she has her predjudices – including what she admits is an unreasonable revulsion at all Australian and Canadian fiction – well don’t we all. And this is not meant to be a comprehensive book – it is one person’s wander through their library, and perhaps its greatest value will be its readers’ response: looking anew at their own.
And you’d have to have a reading heart of stone not to be tempted into some text for which she shares her passion – my unlikely temptation is The Journal of Sir Walter Scott. Like her, I have always found his novels impossible, but she makes this sound positively irresistible.