I love books about books; you probably know this about me but it bears repeating. I love books about books and yet I did not love Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill. I enjoyed parts but this did not live up to the hype for me and I was very disappointed. For the most part though, I was annoyed; I felt deceived -wait, deceived is a strong word so make that misled. The book is subtitled "A Year of Reading From Home" and I expected discussion of books that Susan Hill had discovered on her shelves and finally read, providing her impressions of that first read, and embracing those books on her shelves that she found and greeted like a long-lost relative, rereading and loving them all the more but there was very little -arguably none- of that and instead I read a memoir of a writer who, up until that point, I had only read one book by and honestly didn't have much invested interest in.
Granted, Susan Hill is a bibliophile and as a fellow bibliophile I nodded my head along in agreement at times and shook it at others but for the majority of the time I did not play the part of a nodding dog; Susan Hill and I do not share similar reading tastes and I was bored reading about most of the writers she professed love for (a whole chapter in a short book devoted to WG Sebald, really?) I do share her passion for Virginia Woolf and I found those parts interesting; the small section on Iris Murdoch was exceptionally poignant and I agreed with her point that she has sadly fallen out of fashion and almost into obscurity. After reading a particularly frustrating section (of which I will write more about in a moment) Susan Hill redeemed herself when she credited "A Doll's House" -my all-time favourite Katherine Mansfield short story- as "one of the best stories ever written about childhood" but the redemption was short-lived.
She came across as a book snob, in my opinion, in the below passage and I was very annoyed with her. We all have books that simply don't work for us but this is rather disparaging of entire genres.
But it is not only older books which shiver together, unread, unloved. Here are three books by Terry Pratchett, and I really have tried but it's no good ... stories of wee small men ... I can't. I bought several to see if they were any different but they're not. It scarcely matters. Terry Pratchett can do without me, so can every other fantasy writer and historical novelist who ever wrote.
I am sure that Susan Hill did not mean for this to come across as thoroughly condescending but it did. It angers me when readers discount entire genres; it is pretentious. As a Scot I should also point out that "wee" means small so why use a synonym in addition to the word itself and misquote the title and characters? It scarcely matters. Terry Pratchett has surely outsold Susan Hill numerous times over.
Hill certainly evoked the power of books to transport the reader back in time "in the most extraordinary way - the way of the Proustian madeleine"; this is one of a few pleasant turns of phrase that a fellow book-lover will love but Howards End is on the Landing had the potential to provide so much more. Why couldn't it all have read like the following passage? If it had, this would be an effusive review.
I love the book. I love the feel of a book in my hands, the compactness of it, the shape, the size. I love the feel of paper. The sound it makes when I turn a page. I love the beauty of print on paper, the patterns, the shape, the fonts. I am astonished by the versatility and practicality of The Book. It is so simple. It is so fit for its purpose. It may give me mere content, but no e-reader will ever give me that sort of added pleasure.
I don't think that Susan Hill had anything new to say. Her book didn't read as a book at all with any cohesion to it but more as unconnected essays on books; some of her subjects have been covered as Booking-through-Thursday blog posts and other bloggers have brought up "Things That Fall Out of Books" and "A Book By Its Cover" (amongst other individual blog topics or series). The year of reading at home may have been the pretext for the book but instead of giving an account of her project it took backseat to her recollections of various encounters with other writers and people she thought worthy of note; it then built up to a list of forty books that she could not live without, which I didn't think was ever properly addressed and who hasn't compiled a desert island list at some point? On mine though I have The Complete Works of Shakespeare as it is one physical book and belabouring the point for a number of pages unsatisfactorily (in my opinion) to whittle it down to one play was pointless; goodness, her husband is an eminent Shakespearean scholar, couldn't she have just packed one of his volumes? Basically I think that Howards End is On the Landing was a cop-out and Susan Hill published thoughts on books that book-lovers and bloggers have been articulating for years and bound it in a beautiful cover with a catchy title. Fine, someone paid her for it and she has the reputation that gives authority to those thoughts but her book ultimately did not do what it said on the cover.