It began like this. I went to the shelves on the landing to look for a book I knew was there. It was not, but plenty of others were and among them I noticed at least a dozen I realised I had never read.
I pursued the elusive book through several rooms and did not find it in any of them, but each time I did find at least a dozen, perhaps two dozen, perhaps two hundred that I had never read.
And then I picked out a book I had read but had forgotten I owned, and another and another. After that came the books I had read, knew I owned and realised I wanted to read again.
I found the book I was looking for in the end, but by then it had become far more than a book. It marked the start of a journey through my own library.
How many book lovers recognise the dilemma with which Susan Hill’s memoir begins? Hill’s answer to this was to eschew those shiny new books that call to us on an almost daily basis and spend a year only reading or re-reading the books on her shelves.
A book which is left on a shelf is a dead thing but it is also a chrysalis, an inanimate object packed with the potential to burst into life.
Hill then goes on to talk to us about some of the writers in her collection – Dickens, Hardy, Anita Brookner, Elizabeth Bowen, to name a few. Her thoughts are engaging – she often comments on whether she’s met these people and shares anecdotes about them – and you’ll find yourself adding books to your wishlist (oh, the irony) or thinking about ones you own that you want to re-read.
As an avid reader I very much enjoyed Hill’s tour around her library and it made me think about reading more of the books already sitting on my shelves. However, I do have an issue with the book.
Hill’s book collection (at least the sections of it that she chooses to discuss) is quite anglocentric. There’s a chapter on the wonderful W.G. Sebald and mention of Dostoyevsky and Naipaul but they are unlikely to be new discoveries to most readers. This impacts on the list of the 40 books that Hill feels she couldn’t live without and which she compiles throughout the second half of Howards End Is on the Landing. The final list contains largely classic texts, almost exclusively written in English, by white men and women. It’s a shame because I think she’s very good at discussing books and their writers and it would’ve been nice to come across some new discoveries either in translation or from other cultures. However, if you haven’t studied English Literature or don’t spend half your day glued to Twitter and book blogs picking up recommendations, this could be a book to lead you to some interesting writers.