Susan Hill’s Howards End Is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home

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{In which I am pleased to introduce a new monthy (ish) feature wherein my sister writes about a book we have read for our “sister book club”. Full disclosure: I just got this book from the library today. Don’t laugh! I’ll be better prepared next month. In this month’s discussion we are featuring Susan Hill’s Howards End Is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home. We hope you will join along!}

In less than a month, I will be moving to a new place, and so will be packing up about 20 boxes of books. As I do, I know I will come across several titles that I think, “Why haven’t I read that yet?” or “Why am I still hanging on to this?” And then I’ll toss the books into their respective boxes and dutifully lug them to my new home, unpack them, and completely forget about them for another year or so.

I’m not the only one guilty of this–talented and successful author Susan Hill (whom you may know as the author of The Woman in Black, which was then made into the movie starring Harry Potter) went on a hunt through her house one day, attempting to locate one book, and came across several others, long forgotten, instead. Then and there, she promised herself to only read what books she already had, for one year. No shopping, no libraries, nothing new. Just pillaging from the previously-purchased piles. And thusly was born the premise for Howards End Is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I am a voracious acquirer of books. Fortunately for my wallet, I work at the Library, so I check out most of the books. Yet for every one book I check out and read, there are two more that I check out and don’t read–my eyes are bigger than my stomach (or perhaps, my brain) so back to the library those unread books go. However, from time to time, I still do purchase, or am gifted, a book. And I KNOW Eldest buys far more books than she has the opportunity to read. Ergo, we can relate to Susan Hill’s situation. Excitedly, I texted Eldest, and before long, we had hatched a plan (bringing Middle into it, of course) to read it together and discuss it. You know, like a long-distance book discussion group on Skype. With wine, of course.

book pile

I cannot place too fine a point on this: I love books. I love reading. There may, in fact, be little else in the world I love to do more than read. Unless it’s wandering around in Half-Priced Books, my library (or any library, really), or Barnes and Noble. Or talking about books. Or meeting a favorite author. Do you see a theme emerging? So to read a book about books and reading…and then to talk about it with my sisters? WITH WINE, OF COURSE. Holy cow.

And what a book this is! Susan Hill is a damned fine writer, particularly if you are a reader who enjoys descriptive writing. Consider the line from page 11:

“Now on a golden day in late September, I took two books out to a deckchair in the garden, The first apples were thumping down. The last swallows were dipping and soaring, dipping and soaring over the pond. A dragonfly hovered, its electric-blue back catching the sunlight.”

It’s not all fun and games and a bucolic English idyll, no fears on that count…

“Outside my window, the trees are bare. It is early dark but a silver paring of moon is bright in the sky, with a thousand frosty stars. The air smells of cold. A fox barks from the field.
Dickens for winter.
Throw another log on the fire.”

A memoir of books and reading books. A book about books. (I think this is where I insert a sentence with the word “meta” in it, but let’s just skip that part, okay? Oh, wait…) Some of the books that Hill reads, she has actually read before, and so she plunges headfirst into her recollections of them, and so it is that we are immersed in the literary world of London in the 1960s, and what a world it is. With a vague sense of giddy voyeurism, I found myself immersed in a London library, nodding somberly to E.M. Forester and C. Day Lewis as Hill runs into them in the stacks.

Towards the end of the book, my attention started to lag, perhaps due to my anxiety that the book was overdue. (Hehehe, the irony, had I purchased this book!) And it seemed like this was a book that was less about the year Hill spent reading and more about the role books and authors have played in her life. You come away asking yourself questions like: What are the 40 books YOU could not live without? If you had to write up your life story, framed by books that you read at various times in your life, what would the books be, and how do they relate to your life at that time?

Ultimately, I found this to be a thoughtful, descriptive meditation on the reading life–a memoir of a life in books.

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