11 May 2017

Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill

'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.'

I remember the day this book arrived in the mail and can't believe it was 2009.  Not long after I found a group of people in this blogsphere who had years of experience with authors such as Elizabeth Bowen, Muriel Spark, Penelope Lively, Marghanita Laski, and Dorothy Whipple.  These were the authors hiding in plain sight.  While looking for something to read set in the English countryside there is any number of classics, at the other end of the spectrum, plenty of chic lit.  Once introduced to this Aladdin's cave of literature I ordered title upon title and bought more bookcases.  Now the books sit and wait.

Susan Hill imposed a challenge upon herself to read from her shelves for a year.  As she meanders through her home, browsing titles and pulling out books for a closer look, she recounts the memories associated with her acquisitions.  Being a well-known author, the people Hill comes into contact with take Howards End is on the Landing to a level higher than just a snoop around her shelves.  While on a sleeper train from London to Manchester in 1961....

'But this time is was only Manchester after all, in the company of Katherine Whitehorn, Elizabeth David and Elizabeth Jane Howard, grand-seeming ladies all, and terribly grown-up beside a student in a Marks & Spencer V-necked sweater.  Elizabeth Jane was very kind about my book, and then I talked about student-cooking-on-gas-ring, with Katherine, who had written a book about just that, and Elizabeth David, who had not.'

Like Susan Hill, I rarely read books featuring Australia or Canada, and laughed when just yesterday a customer at the library expressed the same view.  The fact that we were standing in a Canadian library meant we assumed the body language of people sharing a sordid secret, but...you like what you like.  At one point though, I took exception to Hill's broad statement about short stories...'Nobody reads them but people go on buying them'.  I love short stories and stock plenty on my shelves.  Hill mentions that she reads certain stories over and over again from her many volumes so perhaps she meant to imply they're not a popular item.  In any case, she had me reaching for the smelling salts.

Howards End is on the Landing is a book you will want to read with a notebook and pen nearby to jot down interesting titles.  Although, the author would simply underline anything she found interesting but this is something I would never do.  Marking a book, folding down a page, or leaving the book open while face down are activities that separate readers into opposite camps...I digress.   Hill considers The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen to be her masterpiece (which I've read) and The Last September as a favourite (which I haven't).  This also brings to mind one of the intricacies of stocking books - the act of saving books you desperately want to read, but don't, because you can't bear the thought of having an undiscovered piece of writing by an author.  Although, thinking back to a 'find' from Harper Lee's estate, as well as Stella Gibbons' Pure Juliet, perhaps I shouldn't be so precious.

Another behaviour we book lovers seem to have in common is the shelf of books that seemed like a good idea at the time, but don't get much attention after a week.  

'Small hardbacked books bought in the run-up to Christmas or Valentines's or Mother's Day are non-books.  They are about Everything Being Rubbish or how to microwave a budgerigar or where to go before you die, or why Slough is the armpit of the universe, they are little anthologies of love poems or things read at funerals or cartoons about politicians.'

This made me laugh and think of the books I bought on the art of tea, when what I probably wanted at the time was a nice hot cuppa.  There's also a small chapter called Things that Fall out of Books, as a case in point, hiding in my book was a ticket stub from a local theatre for See How They Run.  A reminder of a lovely day out on September 30, 2012.  I know my books will one day end up in someone else's home so I'm passing on the small thrill that comes from a bit of ephemera from the past.  Ticket stubs are tucked into random books on my shelves, read or not, and sometimes the person finding a surprise is me.

If you own a copy of Howards End is on the Landing consider taking it along with you while on holiday this summer.  It's a book lover's delight, particularly if you're a fan of twentieth-century literature.


10 comments:

  1. Hello, this is such a coincidence because I got this book out again a couple of days ago and was re-reading lots of it. It's a book that, once you get started browsing, you just keep on and on! I also have never been interested in Australian or Canadian books for some reason. I bought my copy after the book had been out for a while, from Susan Hill's website, one of the few remaining hardcover copies available then, and was delighted to see that she had signed it.

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  2. I am Australian, living in Australia and I choose not to read Australian books. Thinking about it I probably do not read Canadian books either but not for any particular reason. I will eventually read the new offering from Persephone which was written by a Canadian author. Canadian authors are simply not prominently featured over here.

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    1. Hello pip! Part of the joy of reading is being whisked away from our surroundings, so perhaps that explains a bit about why we like our settings in other countries. Although, one of my library customers said she didn't read Canadian fiction because so much of it is 'weird'. I do have a favorite Canadian author though...Helen Humphreys. She's British by birth, and some of her books are set in England, but if you're ever in the mood to seek out a Canadian author - Humphreys is an excellent place to start!

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  3. Sssh.. I don't get on very well with short stories. But I'm sure little books of hygge count as non-books, Darlene! They do serve a purpose as you can virtuously off-load them to the charity shop and know you'll never miss them. (Celebrity cookbooks, anything about organising your life, all those cute Ladybird books of mums/husbands/hangovers that are flooding the charity shops of Britain becaause nobody wants them!)

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    1. On succumbing to Hygge and Ladybird books....guilty as charged. You're so right, Mary. Although, the Ladybird book I bought recently was so prettily packaged I read it in the car and then popped it over to a neighbour once we were home. It's probably passed through several hands by now, still in the same gift bag!
      But Mary...not a fan of the short story?!

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  4. I'm ashamed to say how long this book has been on my landing...especially since I "had" to have it as soon as I heard about it. That seems to be the death knell for me actually reading a book. (PS I'm thrilled to be in the Biannually with you. Did you see?)

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    1. It was so nice seeing lots of my favourite blog friends in this issue, Audrey....well done, you! I'm glad you enjoyed Miss Ranskill as much as I did.
      Isn't it strange how we just have to have a certain book only to let it sit around? Chalk it up to delayed gratification, I suppose. In any case, toss it into your bag and head to a sunny park...enjoy!

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  5. I've read it twice, and I rarely do that. I love the book so much.

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    1. I'm sure that I'll read it again too, Nan. At Christmas there are tours to see how people decorate their homes, but a tour to see other people's bookshelves sounds like more fun to me. Reading Susan's book made me wish I could visit her house for a proper look at her collection.

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  6. I first read this on a train journey to the Lake District, and read it again a few years later, and it must be due a reread soon. SUCH a lovely, interesting book - can't wait for the sequel this winter (hopefully).

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