During the first lockdown of March 2020 I bought a lot of books. I can read a book every two days, the library was closed and I needed something to fill the time. It cost me a fortune and I didn’t have the space for all of the books once I had finished them. The delivery drivers all knew where our house was and where they could put the parcels if we weren’t in. What my husband didn’t see were all the books I bought to read on my Kindle!
So, when we had second lockdown I knew that I couldn’t do the same again and looked around the house for what I fancied rereading. I reread non-fiction quite a lot but not fiction. I found that I had several books in series – Donna Leon, James Lee Burke, Robyn Hobb (I would say that I don’t like fantasy but I devoured all of Hobb’s books), Philip Pullman, Philip Kerr and Susan Hill. Why I have kept these books and not others was not something I had thought about until I read Howard’s End is on the Landing: A year of reading from home by Susan Hill.
This book was published in 2009/10 so her drive to read what she already had at home was not a pandemic but more a realisation that she had a LOT of books and that she felt she needed to get to know the books again. I have to say although I have books and bookshelves in every sensible room in the house, Hill obviously has way more spanning many decades.
She started to look through her shelves and pick out books that she wanted to reread but of course got distracted by others and memories attached to them. In going through this process she created categories of books. There were the non-books, those things you get at Christmas that can be dipped into and out of and then disposed of. There were the diaries, collections and compilations, short stories, bad bed-fellows, books that have never been read and many, many more.
Each chapter focuses on an idea, memory, person or book that has been stimulated by looking through the shelves and it is obvious that Hill likes the classics and has met a lot of authors and others through her work not just as a writer but as a presenter on radio and a publisher herself. I didn’t meet many books or people I knew in it, even in the lists. The book ends with a list of 40 books that she would take to a desert island and details the process she goes through to choose some of them. I have read 4 of them, possibly 5 but I can’t quite remember whether I read The Bell by Iris Murdoch or just thought I did.
It is a very well-written book, quite amusing and I galloped through it being in what Hill would call a ‘gobbling-up’ phase of reading rather than a ‘Slow reading’ phase. I am not sure this is a book which needs to be read slowly but she puts forward a good case for doing so with some books.
Some books deserve better. Everything I am reading this year has so much to yield but only if I give it my full attention and respect it by reading it slowly. Fast reading of a novel will get us the plot. It will get us the names, a shadowy idea of characters, a sketch of settings. It will not get us subtleties, small differentiations, depth of emotion and observation, multi-layered 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.p172
And so I feel a little guilty that I have read through so many books this year, complained about the length of them and just wanted to finish them quicker rather than savouring them. Something to take forward into my reading. Hill does go on to say that not every book is worth that sort of effort. It’s how you decide and maybe reading quickly is one way to do it and then go back and reread slowly. I haven’t had many books I would do that for but one that stands out is The Love Songs of W. E. B. du Bois by Honoree Fanonne Jeffers. I might need to buy a copy of that book and reread it slowly. I bought her book of poetry The Age of Phillis and have not read it because the text refused to give up its meaning on a quick read and I gave up. It might become my first book that I know I need to read slowly before I start it. The question that leaps out at me is ‘Who is Phillis?’ and I need to look into that before I start reading to help point me in the right direction.
I really enjoyed the book and the reflection on reading that Hill had and that it engendered in me but there is something about the book that rubbed me up the wrong way, irritated me, and I can’t quite put my finger on it. I think it has something to do with the name dropping, although she does alert her reader to this at the start. The names she drops are all giants in the world of books and I can’t help but wonder who else had access to this sort of person from the age of 18. She mentions twice that her first book was published when she was 18 leading me to wonder if her parents were involved in anyway with reading and writing. It is also something to do with the very classic nature of all the books she talks about. Part of me knows that this is Hill looking back over books that mean something to her and so they will be classic or modern classics but she is quite derogatory about just reading new books and those on award winning lists. Maybe I don’t like it because that is exactly what I am doing.
What the book does lack is diversity of authors. She does talk about male/female balance of her books but I can not remember one book that she mentions that was not written by a white person. That might just be me viewing it through the eyes of today but I think it makes the book a bit elitist or privileged. It makes it an interesting and thought-provoking book and therefore one that would make a good book club read.
I also can’t forget the list of 40 books that I would want with me where ever I went and may have to start compiling the list.