Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill

I'm a big fan of Susan Hill.  I've been reading her fiction for years, listening to her on the radio, and was a devotee of her blog before she gave it up.  I once frightened myself silly by reading The Woman in Black while babysitting in a draughty, creaky rectory.  Usually, her books delight.  But Howards End is on the Landing delighted and irritated in equal measure.

I can entirely see the point of her initial project - for a year, to only read books she already owend.  I also have a lot of books, and I enjoy re-reading them.  Some of my favourites have been read until they fell to pieces.  It is usually enlightening, as well as pleasant, to take down a book and re-read it; as Hill points out, you'll see something you couldn't before, and mood and environment can alter your perception of any text. But about half-way through the book, her project develops: she will select a list of forty books that would be a sustaining library for the rest of her days, if she could read nothing else.  My irritation is not with the final forty themselves (although TWO Trollopes?  really?) but with the peculiar game of Sophie's Choice that Hill plays in the later chapters of the book.  I found it difficult to work out why getting to a final forty was so important.  At one point, she asks the reader to pick between To the Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway.  Why would you want to do that?

On reflection, I think Hill is struggling against the excessive choice of reading material that we now have.  I am a generation younger than Susan Hill, but I also remember having to re-read my library books because I'd used up my allowance for a week.  She is often nostalgic for these limitations on the scope of reading; her fairly frequently expressed objections to e-readers might be less to do with her enthusiasm for the texture of books, considerable though it is, than with her reluctance to enter the world of limitless choice that the Kindle and its like offer.  Ironically, of course, it is probably only possible to make educated choices about your ultimate list of favourite books after a lifetime of extensive reading, such as Susan Hill has enjoyed.

There is a lot to value in this book, however, and Hill's celebrations of writers who have been, or are becoming, forgotten, as well as of those that remain celebrated and widely read, are excellent; she even makes Anita Brookner sound enticing.   I enjoyed Susan Hill's refreshing attitude to taste in reading - her enthusiasms are not limited by a commitment to the highbrow - as well as the sometimes provocative tone, which certainly made me think more about what I read, and why.


  1. Great, thoughtful review, thanks! I don't think I've come across any review which was so balanced - most people seem off in the deep end either way (with me in the deep end of loving it!)

  2. Thanks, Simon - equivocal is my middle name!