Susan Hill is a wonderful writer and I have a feeling that if I were ever lucky enough to meet her, I would find a kindred spirit. I have not read much of her fiction, apart from the wonderful The Woman in Black and The Second Mrs De Winter, but her non-fiction is so evocative and well-written I almost prefer it.
I was introduced to my first non-fiction Susan Hill book by my regular blog read, DoveGreyReader Scribbles. DoveGreyReader and her subscribers recommended The Magic Apple Tree as a touching meditation on life in a small village. At the time I read those comments, I was feeling a little overwhelmed by life in London and so jumped at the chance to immerse myself in the changing seasons of the English countryside and I was richly rewarded.
The blurb evoked a journey through Hill’s bookshelves and the importance of reading. I was hooked and couldn’t leave the shop without it. One reason this particularly appealed to me that day was I’d been having a slightly heated discussion with the love of my life about the problem of book storage. He was asking me to whittle down my collection so we could avoid the double stacking, stacks on the floor, general nightmare of our study cum third bedroom. I was horrified. Give away my books? How could I do that and deprive myself of re-reading them all when I’m too old or poor to buy any more? Or deprive myself of a niggling question about X author or Y last line that a quick flip through my shelves can answer? Or deprive myself of the sentimental value and memories tied to so many of my copies? You can imagine I gave a rather robust defence. Love me, love my books! So this was the conversation I had in mind when I picked up this book about a year of reading exclusively from your own collection and the joys of rediscovery. Perfect.
The first thing to say is that Hill’s home sounds wonderful! Cosy fires, bookshelves everywhere and nestled into the countryside. She describes wonderful autumn afternoons of browsing through the bookshelves and then settling down with her selections at the kitchen table or in a soft armchair, with a fire and a cup of tea. She talks of her reasons for doing this year of rereading as wanting to ‘repossess her books, explore what I had accumulated over a lifetime of reading and map this house of many volumes.’ I think that is exactly what I had in mind when thinking about why I was holding on so fiercely to all my own books.
There were so many gems of ideas, vignettes of Hill’s meetings with many authors and general bookish information in this book that I can’t begin to summarise them all, but one in particular that connected with me was about slow reading. Hill describes how her books deserve to be savoured: ‘Everything I am reading during this year has so much to yield but only if I give it my full attention and respect by reading it slowly.’ Hill is absolutely right that much is missed when reading quickly and it is a fault I know I have. I am so greedy for books I gobble them up quickly without pausing to reflect on the nuances and intricacies. I will now try to read more slowly to see if I get more from my own books.
At the end of the book, Hill lists the forty books that she could not be without. I have read about a quarter of them so that will be a challenge to do later this year. I grew to respect Hill’s opinions so much in this book that I will take her top forty extremely seriously. I suspect that Howards End is on the Landing may just be in my top forty.