Tuesday 26 March 2013

Howards End is on the Landing

I wasn't expecting to love this book so much! I picked it up from my TBR shelf where it had been languishing quite some years as a diversion from the slower, leisurely pace of reading The Coral Island, expecting to read a chapter at a time, as a reward for banging on with the other. But very quickly the wonderful Susan Hill took over, and pacific island adventures were temporarily laid aside.

I hadn't heard of Susan Hill before I bought this book a few years ago- I have no recollection of buying it, there's no bookshop sticker on the back to help my clearly failing memory, but I've always remembered that it was there, waiting patiently on the shelf. I'm so glad that I got to it. Susan Hill as it turns out is an author of 37 books, publishing her first book at 18, she has also worked at the BBC and on quite a number of prize panels judging literary awards. She is married to a Shakespearean Professor, Stanley Wells. All of which makes her frightfully well read, and frightfully well connected in the literary and art worlds. Until I realised all that I was a bit annoyed by her rather frequent namedropping- bumping into E.M Foster in the library stacks, parties with Ian Fleming and lunches with Benjamin Britten and Irish Murdoch.

It all began simply enough, as most things do.

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 that 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. 

And haven't we all done that? I certainly have. Well apart from the journey through my own library part. She does have a seemingly vast personal library- a house stuffed with books including 4 complete sets of Dickens and 113 books by or about Virginia Woolf (and still I liked Susan and this book!). She reads widely in many forms- diaries, poems, short stories as well as the more obvious fiction and nonfiction. Susan has an ongoing fascination with pop-up books and still adds to her collection, and keeps her childrens favourite picture books in the house, and indeed has a lovely chapter on the joys of reading aloud to children.

Susan Hill is marvellously opinionated, and makes some rather outrageous comments from time to time.

Not Orwell. Me. It is always us, never the book, or almost never. (With Barbara Cartland, it is the book.)
I am bored by Jane Austen.
I have a problem with Canadian as I do with Australian writers. 
Pym's world of stuttering curates, wistful spinsters and awkward bachelors, of North Oxford and small country parishes, is superficially bland and narrow.  

She is so marvelously well read that it was somewhat of a relief to discover that she too has a rather extensive TBR. Although she rightly notes that "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 new life."

A special relationship is formed with books that have been on our shelves for years without being read. They become known in a strange way, perhaps because we have read a lot about them, or they are books that are part of our overall heritage..... Some books I have not read are here temporarily- paperbacks bought on a whim, novels someone has persuaded me I will love but I know, by one glance at the cover and blurb, that I will not. They will not stick around. They are waiting for the next consignment to the charity bookshop.

On the other hand, some not-read books are just waiting for their time to come. It will, it will, perhaps when I am very old, or have an illness that requires me to stay in bed for days but that does not make me feel too rotten to read. Perhaps I will take one on a train..... There are books I have not read which I know I will love; and I'll be amazed and distressed when I do get round to them that I did not allow them to enrich my life years ago.

At times though it seems she has read nearly everything. Although even Susan Hill has limits, she too has Proust and James Joyce on the Impossible shelf. I don't fully understand how she reads so quickly- she rereads all of Anita Brookner in a mere 3 weeks, and yet she advocates slow reading- so much so that she has a chapter entitled Slow, Slow, Slow-Slow, Slow. She bemoans that reading has turned into a form of speed dating by bloggers boasting of reading 20+ books per week.

The best books deserve better. Everything I am reading during this year has so much to yield but only if I give it my full attention and respect by reading it slowly. Fast reading of a great novel will get us the plot. It will get us names, a shadowy idea of characters, a sketch of settings. It will not get us subtleties, small differentions, depth of emotion and observation, multilaytered human experience, the appreciation of simile and metaphor, any sense of context, any comparison with other novels, other writers. Fast reading will not get us cadence and complexities of style and language. It will not get us anything that enters not just the conscious mind but the unconscious. It will not allow the book to burrow down into our memory and become part of ourselves, the accumulation of knowledge and wisdom and vicarious experience which helps to form us as complete human beings. It will not develop our awareness or add to the sum of our knowledge and intelligence. 

Susan instead describes reading two to three chapters of books (she gives examples here such as To the Lighthouse, Little Dorrit, The Age of Innocence or Midnight's Children), and then stops, and goes back.

...look at how the sentences and paragraphs are put together, how the narrative works, how a character is brought to life. But I want to think about what I have read before I move on for only in this way will I appreciate the whole as being both the sum of, and more than the sum of, its parts. 

Which is odd in a way. It's kind of what I get out of blogging a book. I do think about it more after I've finished reading. It consolidates my thoughts and I remember more of it later too. I'm much too ponderous a reader and would get nothing read if I went back over things again after 2 or 3 chapters.

One thing that's really stuck with me is that when Susan was telling a friend about her desire to start a publishing company, he tells her 'Do it. We should all embark on something completely new every ten years.' Ten years. I've done new things in the past ten years, but don't know that I've embarked on something completely new. It's an enticing thought. Nearly impossible, but enticing.

In the latter stages of the book for some reason Susan appears consumed with the task of creating the 40  books that would sustain her for the rest of her life. Which seems a bit of a pointless exercise for someone who has 23 books on Marilyn Monroe sitting on her shelves. It's not the 40 books I'd chose by any stretch, but perhaps that is the point.

The laughable thing is that I read this book as to rid the TBR shelves of one title. Perhaps after I'd finished I'd donate it to the library, or a charity book sale? Ha. Not only has my TBR grown immeasurably, but I'll be keeping this one on the shelf too. At least it's read now. And you never know I may reread it sometime.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I hadn't heard of this book, but the name Susan Hill was familiar. Then I remembered that she wrote 'The Woman in Black' which I saw as a stage show- a real Gothic hoot (if that's not a contradiction in terms!). I enjoy reading books about books.