This is a year of reading from home, by one of Britain’s most distinguished authors.
Early one autumn afternoon in pursuit of an elusive book on her shelves, Susan Hill encountered dozens of others that she had never read, or forgotten she owned, or wanted to read for a second time. The discovery inspired her to embark on a year-long voyage through her books, forsaking new purchases in order to get to know her own collection again.
A book which is left on a shelf for a decade is a dead thing, but it is also a chrysalis, packed with the potential to burst into new life. Wandering through her house that day, Hill’s eyes were opened to how much of that life was stored in her home, neglected for years. Howards End is on the Landing charts the journey of one of the nation’s most accomplished authors as she revisits the conversations, libraries and bookshelves of the past that have informed a lifetime of reading and writing.
I already know I’ll keep this book with me for as long as I can, because its value is in the references to unread authors, the invocation of those wonderful times of quiet reading, and introspection in a house apparently empty of other people, though it echoes with the family memories imprinted in its walls and in its books.
Susan Hill communicates well the joy of rediscovery, and the pleasure of remembrance. Her voice is gentle and cosy, welcoming the reader into the stories of books and people that she treasures. Though I’ve read very few of these books and authors, her tone is never patronizing or exclusive. It is beckoning. She knows, with the skill of an experienced author and publisher, exactly when to shift to another topic, exactly how long to linger on every fond memory and profound influence.
Every so often, there is a short sense-of-place paragraph, and we can feel the seasons moving on, and the pastoral geography of Susan Hill’s home. It conjures this feeling of longing, for a tranquil, perfectly situated and rambling place to really live with your books – to hunt through multiple rooms for them, to share your shelves with your family’s interests and studies. I would love to have somewhere like this one day, to really fill a house with books, and have the time and space to enjoy them.
What’s interesting is that she keeps coming back to the metaphor of what books are, exactly, and especially books left on shelves. She describes them as a chrysalis, sleeping, or waiting, chattering and murmuring amongst one another, or sat in a friendly silence. I suppose it’s difficult not to consider the question when you’re surrounded by books in such volume, and writing a book about those left unread. But the debate lends itself to some wonderful prose poetry, leaning on others’ descriptions in order to find the right words, and evoke the right feeling for this wealth of the written word, and the history that they represent, that Susan Hill lives in the midst of.