Susan Hill spent a year reading or re-reading only books she could already find somewhere in the house. The result of this self-restriction is her volume Howards End is on the Landing, in which she talks about her reading from early childhood to last week - or, at any rate, to the time of writing. 'Talks about' conveys accurately both the tone and method of the book, because it reads as if the author is sitting chatting to you, and she moves from one broad reading-related topic to another without any apparent system, but merely conversationally, picking up a connection at the end of one chapter and taking it into the next, or even just hopping from one theme or author to another on the fly.
I just finished reading the book, and it's a gem. It is a book from which a love of the printed word shines out. By change of metaphor, it breathes a love of reading and of books on every page. It does so without ever becoming narrow or its focus too obsessively restricted, and this is because of the conversational, as it were episodic method. Susan writes both about the 'inside' and the 'outside' of a lifetime's reading: not only about the content of the books themselves, of the works of those authors to whom she devotes more than a passing reference; but also about the look and the feel of the volumes containing these works, the different editions, their location in the various rooms and spaces and shelves in the house, the times when she first read them, the occasions of re-reading, the sitting in the garden and the reading in bed, the writers of the books whom Susan has met or the secondary connections when she hasn't met them, or something she knows about them from biographies or somehow else.
To all of this she brings a vast reading knowledge and extensive personal acquaintance, and she guides her readers along in a voice that is at once chatty, generous and enthusiastic. Is it 'guides' or is it 'nudges'? In one chapter you're reading about books that have made the author laugh, in the next it's Kingsley and Martin Amis, and then it's books that have remained unread by her. Later on we move, without logical transition, from Virginia Woolf nonpareil to books that Susan classifies as the dregs. And, building up through it all, accumulated decades of avid reading. '[J]ust as my genes and the soul within me make me uniquely me,' Susan says, 'so I am the unique sum of the books I have read.' Building up, likewise, the impression of that house and its rooms full of books. At one point... 'All through the house, the books are murmuring, turning over in sleep like pebbles on the shoreline as the tide recedes.'
Here is Susan on Dickens:
I could spend my year of reading from home with Dickens alone - well, almost. In the silly game of which authors to throw overboard from the lifeboat and which one - just one - to save, I would always save Dickens. He is mighty. His flaws are huge but magnificent - and all of a piece with the whole. A perfect, flawless Dickens would somehow be a shrunken, impoverished one. Yes, he is sentimental, yes, he has purple passages, yes, his plots sometimes have dropped stitches, yes, some of his characters are quite tiresome. But his literary imagination was the greatest ever, his world of teeming life is as real as has ever been invented, his conscience, his passion for the underdog, the poor, the cheated, the humiliated are god-like. He created an array of varied, vibrant, living, breathing men and women and children that is breathtaking in its scope. His scenes are painted like those of an Old Master, in vivid colour and richness on huge canvases. His prose is spacious, symphonic, infinitely flexible. He can portray evil and create a menacing atmosphere of malevolence better than any other writer - read Little Dorritt, read Our Mutual Friend, read Bleak House if you don't believe me. He is macabre, grotesque, moralistic, thunderous, funny, ridiculous, heartfelt. Nobody has ever written as he wrote about London, nobody has described the Essex Marshes so well, nobody has opened a book to such effect as he does in Bleak House. There is no area of life he does not illuminate, no concern or cause he does not make his own, no sentences, no descriptions, no exchanges, no sadnesses or tragedies or betrayals...
I felt, at this point, like cheering.
No gripes, then? Of course there are. How could there not be with such a book, offering as it does so panoramic a view of one person's literary tastes and memories, but with the gaps and differences of judgement there are bound inevitably to be relative to the perceptions and preferences of anybody else? How can someone so right about Dickens be so impervious to the qualities of the divine Jane? How, for that matter, be so impervious to Jane Austen while talking up the novels of Anita Brookner? And why is there not even a mention of...? But stop. That's an idle game. It's one person's reading and not another's, and Howards End is on the Landing is one true beaut of a book. The proof of the pudding is that every few pages it has you itching to read something that Susan has read and you haven't, and the appeal of which she conveys in the most inviting way.
Now, where shall I shelve it?