Howards End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home
London: Profile Books, 2009.
The first thing I want to say about this book is that I really wish I had had the idea first. Susan Hill went hunting through her farmhouse in the North Cotswolds for Howards End and found, instead, dozens of books that she had not yet read, had forgotten having read and wanted to re-read, so she swore off buying any new books for a year, and read from home. In a wonderfully varied and digressive series of short essays she takes a voyage through her own library, and it is a rich and entertaining chronicle.
This is an apt introduction to books about books because she includes so many aspects of the category: libraries, rare books, book collecting, marginalia, fonts, publishing, her individual history of reading, discussions of individual writers, the making and breaking of literary reputations, the English educational system of which she was a product, and much more.
The book was also written in the year that marked the fiftieth anniversary of her having been a professional writer, with thirty-seven books to her name, and though she is never explicit about the anniversary, the book and all of the love of reading that it records seem a wonderful way to celebrate that milestone.
If this isn’t a great blog idea, I don’t know what is, but of course, she’s got years on me, and I don’t have anything like the library she does. Really, I just need to practice self-control when it comes to book buying. A colleague of my husband’s came to our house about five years ago and said, “I thought there would be more books.” Her comment was a license to buy, pure and simple, but I have used it too liberally, and I am now catching up with all the books that have gathered in drifts and piles around the house. (I used to worry that my bedside table was lethal to the kids because of its sharp corners. Now I fear they could be crushed under an avalanche if one of the tottering piles of books by my bed gets nudged.)
Impossible as this may sound, I, too, have now sworn off buying books for myself for a year. As of today, January 15, I am in a record-setting position: it has been a month since I have bought a book. I will try to experience the thrill of buying books vicariously as I read about others’ libraries.
“Library” is not quite the right word for Susan Hill’s books, because it connotes a restricted place as well as a collection, and her books are scattered throughout her house with an organizing principle known only to her.
I have an abiding love of floor plans. I love to look at the floor plans in the newspaper ads for new condos and McMansions. I fall headlong into them and imagine all the possibilities for the clean bare rooms. Unlike the staged houses in decorating magazines, there really is nothing to quarrel with in a floor plan, nothing to interfere with my superimposing my fantasy onto the clean, bare grid. Oh! To live without clutter!
Susan Hill’s house seems to be full of book clutter, but somehow making my way through the chapters of this book gave me a similar kind of satisfaction. Like floor plans, her book fed my imagination. The rooms in her sixteenth-century cottage came gradually into shape in my mind’s eye as she described the books that dwell within them. Hill has books in every room of her house, and each room emerges, first and foremost, as a place where books live and are lovingly read. Though I could not live with the higgledy piggledy arrangement and scattering of books, I was captured by the description of the entire house as a home for books: the “small, dark den,” the various landings, the shelves over the doors, her bedside table, the lair of the SP, the Shakespeare Professor Stanley Wells, to whom she is married.
In her introduction , she writes, “I wanted to repossess my books, to explore what I had accumulated over a lifetime of reading, and to map this house of many volumes.” The cartographic verb is apt; she gives the reader a layered map of the house, its books, its owner and the many forces that shaped her: “let us cross the den and open the small door which, like the one in the back of the wardrobe that led into Narnia, now gives out not into our hall, as it really should, but into the book stacks of the London Library.”
There are chapters on various genres—poetry, comedy, drama, children’s books, pop-up books, diaries—and chapters on individual writers—Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf, Ian Flemming, Iris Murdock, Roald Dahl—and into these she weaves personal, historical and social contexts.
Most interesting to me were the chapters on the book as object, as a physical presence. Here is what she has to say about her favourite font, designed by Ralph Beyer for the new Coventry Cathedral, consecrated in 1962: “It is strange to have a font, of all things, bound up with your life, but this one speaks to me of places and people and time, all precious to me; if you cut me open, I daresay that whatever is carved upon my heart will be in Ralph Beyer lettering.” This is what I mean when I talk about the physicality of the book: not just its own physical properties, but its physical effects, real or imagined, on us as readers. There is a chapter on electronic books and how they would eliminate the tactile pleasure of books, of the things that fall out of books, of marginalia, and of the smell of libraries and borrowed books, which each have a chapter to themselves.
She is wonderful on the description of writing in books and which books invite or forbid the reader’s inscriptions. She is adamant that those who keep their immaculate Folio books arranged in alphabetical order are probably not proper readers in any case, and she looks down her nose at those who have rigid systems of classification: “I know people who own thousands of books and can tell you the exact spot where every single one of them is shelved. They colour coordinate them, or arrange them by alphabet or author or subject. Well, that is what collectors enjoy doing, with books arranged like stamps in albums. Good luck to them. My father’s sock drawer was just the same.”
In one of the shortest chapters in the book, she makes a daring confession: “I am bored by Jane Austen. There now, I’ve said it.” While she examines her books by Austen, she says, “I remember what an English teacher at school told me long ago when I confessed to her—a passionate and knowledgeable Janeite—that I could not get along with the novels. ‘Nor could I at your age. Don’t worry. She will seem very different when you grow up.’ So I put the Oxford complete novels back on the shelf, to wait until then.” I love that. I love that sense of there still being many reading years ahead and hope for change. I often feel that I will never have read enough, done enough, that there is never enough time. If, at nearly seventy, she can calmly reshelve books and wait for the right time to read them, then so can I.
One serious quarrel I have with the book, apart from her indifference to Jane Austen, is Hill’s disdain for the colonies. It really is such an English snobbery, but she has no time for Canadian or Australian literature. The stories of Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant are, she declares, all alike. Did she confer with Victoria Glendenning, I wonder. You can take it as a mark of the book’s merits that I like the rest of the book in spite of this terrible transgression of good taste.
She has a rather endearing way of referring often to her schooling and her academic achievements, her A and O levels, her university texts and striped college scarf. However, there is rather too much mention of what works of poetry or passages of prose she has by heart; the phrase “have it by heart” pops up a few times too many, and I felt a strong editorial hand was required there so as to tame the preening school-girl persona.
One effect of reading this book is that Hill makes me feel that education is wasted on the young. I want to go back to my own books, fill in gaps and pull down the books that got lost in the wake of Ph.D. specialization.
She has given me a few items to add to my wishlist, but more important than a list of more books to read and re-read, she has shown me how I might house mine differently. A friend of mine was recently trapped on her landing: having gotten one child down for a nap, she dared not walk past the bedroom of her sister, a light sleeper who was also napping. She sat on the landing between bedrooms and read.
The stairs in our house squeak loudly enough to wake the dead, so I know her fear, but I would have been trapped on my kids’ landing with nothing to read. I keep all my favourite books close to me, by my bed, in the bookshelves in my bedroom, surrounding me at my desk. They are almost all collected on the top floor of the house, where I have my bedroom and study. I shall stop hoarding them now, spread them out a bit, let them speak to others who might wander through the as yet bookless rooms in my house.
Well, except for the Scholastic books that I ordered for Griffin and Rowan today. I did buy the boys four books today.
 I also bought a book earlier this week for Ted for Valentine’s Day. (Hi, honey.)
 I guess in the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I also bought two travel guides to Scotland today. I had lunch with Ted in the food court under his building, and he picked up travel brochures, and we decided on Scotland for our 10-year anniversary trip, and he went back to work, and I went into the bookstore and picked up two travel guides, and then I put them back on the shelf and phoned him and said I simply could not break my record-breaking one-month stint of not buying books and that he would have to come back down and buy them, and he said it wouldn’t’ really count if I bought them for him and saved him the trip, so I did.
 And when we went to see High Fidelity at the Hart House Theatre tonight, I not so much hinted as told Ted that he should pick up a copy of Nick Hornby’s novel on which the play was based.
 I’m doomed, aren’t I?