An influential book from an influential writer …

Howards End is on the landing by Susan Hill

That pesky Susan Hill! She’s managed to set the book-blogging world alight with her latest – a memoir about reading the books in her house and the stories they are associated with. HEIOTL, as I shall abbreviate it to, has become a blogging hot topic – but in the nicest possible way…

At the heart of HEIOTL is Hill’s decision not to add to her house full of books for a year (except for books she is to review); to explore her collection and find new books to read in it, to re-discover lost gems and re-read favourites, and then to compile a list of the forty books she couldn’t live without.

Each shelf examined brings reminiscences. There are stories about encounters with great writers and celebrated personages, who all seemed to be very supportive of the young novelist, and indeed many of them became friends. I loved all this name-dropping, and particularly enjoyed the chapter about Benjamin Britten whose ‘Sea Interludes’ provided an epiphany for Hill (I love them too – they were marvellous to play many years ago in Croydon Youth Philharmonic Orchestra); the story about Alan Clark was good also.

There are many discussions of writers and their books. Hill is refreshingly honest about what she doesn’t enjoy reading as well as her literary loves – she’s no Austenite, but reveres much of Thomas Hardy, she can’t be doing with Terry Pratchett and Sci-Fi in general but did concede to liking John Wyndham but puts him in the horror pile. I was delighted that she loves Ian Fleming, John Le Carré and Michael Connelly too.

Although I haven’t read him, her chapter about W.G.Sebald does make me want to read The Rings of Saturn. She writes “But so many places on a Sebald journey are eerie, deserted, out of date, and lie under a pall of dismal weather. In The Rings of Saturn he walks through East Anglia and manages to make places I know well, and have found sparkling and lively, suicidally depressing.” I lived and worked for nearly two years in and around Great Yarmouth – a South Londoner fresh out of uni and have rarely felt so lonely as then, so I’m with Sebald on that one.

Then at the last pages we get to the final forty, the snapshot in time of the forty books she couldn’t do without – well on that day at least, for she says she would probably pick a different 40 tomorrow. The natural extension of this is to start compiling one’s own forty – but that’s another project and post!

Every year I say I must read more books from my TBR mountains. Do I think I could do as Hill did and not buy any new books for a whole year? It would be nice, but I don’t think I can. Simon at Stuck in a Book has set himself a post-HEIOTL challenge to buy no more than 24 books in 2010. My biggest problem post-HEIOTL is the number of books I’ve added to my wishlist, and may have to buy/acquire, after reading it – an index would have been slightly helpful here!

I love reading books about books, and this one (with its lovely cover) didn’t disappoint. Susan Hill is doing an event in Abingdon next month, and I’m really looking forward to hearing her talk about it. I also hope to fit in reading another of her novels too – The Beacon has been on my shelves unread for ages too.

This book sure has got us all thinking! If you want to read more reviews, see Dgr, Paperback reader, Savidge Reads, and Other Stories to name but a few. Oh, and by the way, if you love books about books, do read Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman – it’s utterly brilliant.

0 thoughts on “An influential book from an influential writer …

  1. Kirsty says:

    Oh, do read The Beacon. It's really quite gripping, and really raises questions about the fashion for misery memoirs.

  2. Annabel Gaskell says:

    Thanks Kirsty, I'm planning to read it before her visit anyway but am now looking forward to it even more.

  3. StuckInABook says:

    Nice review, Annabel, hopefully will spread the word even further! You'll have noticed that I chose to impose my book-buying limit starting in January… which gives me plenty of time to stock up on things Susan Hill mentions in this book(!) Crafty, no?See you on Tuesday, at the quiz!

  4. Annabel Gaskell says:

    Aargh! No pressure then on me as quizmaster and question setter! Hope you are pre-booked – as we're almost full now… I look forward to meeting you.P.S. I had noticed your craftiness – I would do the same if I had the willpower.

  5. bookheaper says:

    I completely agree with your recommendation of Ann Fadiman's Ex Libris. It's my favourite book about books too (even though some of her chapters aren't even about books). I wish she would do another volume, just about books and reading in general again. I also like Alberto Manguel's A Reading Diary.

  6. Annabel Gaskell says:

    Bookheaper – I have Fadiman's At Large and at Small on my TBR pile, which if not totally bookish in theme, I'm sure will be brilliant to read.

  7. bookheaper says:

    Oh yes, thanks for reminding me about that one. Will be interested to know what you think of it. I've read her Rereadings but it isn't all Fadiman essays so wasn't quite what I was looking for. Good luck with your quiz – I wish I was near enough to come.

  8. Tom C says:

    Thanks for an insightful review. This has just come out in p’back and was reviewed in the Guardian yesterday – I missed it when it was first published and may get hold of a copy. Like you my tbr pile is mountainous, but I love books about “reading”

    • gaskella says:

      Thanks Tom – it was a really enjoyable read for me. I know some didn’t like all the name-dropping and were annoyed with her frank views, but it brought her alive for me, and highlighted many books I’d like to read too.

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