For reasons I’m not entirely clear on, I decided I had to have a copy of Howard’s End is On the Landing, by Susan Hill, a book about the year she spent reading only the books she already had in her home. There’s a challenge, I thought. I can’t seem to go a week without buying or borrowing a new book. My TBR pile will eventually fall and kill me.
I think I must’ve seen something about this book on one of my book emails. Fortunately, ThriftBooks.com had a copy at a reasonable price, so I was able to get hold of it fairly easily.
It’s the sort of book I love, well used, but in good shape, pages softened and yellowed by handling and age, edge wear, a few dog-ears, some scribbles, and a number of underlines. This is a page from Hill’s thoughts on Roald Dahl. Apparently a previous reader loved Dahl and agreed vigorously with what Hill had to say about him. It made me laugh when I saw the emphatic underlining, and to add even more weight, the kinetic circle that practically screams “YES! THIS!!”
The spine is cracked, speaking volumes (forgive the pun, it was intentional, I promise) about one-handed reading. (Not that sort! Stop it right now.) the other propped under a head, in bed or out out under a tree on a fine day, or holding a cup of coffee or a sandwich. A few of the pages are foodishly smudged. Yeah, I like a book with some mileage.
I’m adding my own markings, and a virtual bouquet of little cat-faced post-it tags to mark the pages where reside things that I want to go back to. Like this:
This is a quote from the diaries of Roy Strong, former director of the National Portrait Gallery. He’s talking about a London society hostess named Pamela Hartwell.
What I found striking in this paragraph was the sense that I know people like this. Hell, I see one in the mirror every day. I know too many people who, though smart, have never learned to think either critically or deeply about anything with predictable results ranging from dissatisfaction with their lives to some of the most utterly bone-headed opinions ever uttered. Not that I would say as much to anyone because, yeah, the person in the mirror? She has the same issues. I was startled to see myself and so many friends mirrored in a quote from a book within a book about books — a theme for this year’s reading — but I suppose I ought not to be. The best books speak to us directly, don’t they?
Right after the Roald Dahl chapter came “Decline and Rise” about the novels of Iris Murdoch, and on a deeper level, about how an author’s stock often falls in the years after their deaths, but may rise again, depending on the universality of their work. Do they speak to subsequent generations? Hill believes Murdoch’s work does.
What caught my eye, and my imagination was this comment about how time will not change Murdoch’s novels, and yet with each subsequent generation that discovers them, they do change; every reader changes them. Hill says: “…because until it is read, a book is a dead thing.” That’s true. Books depend on us as much as we depend on them. They must be read to live. I underlined that in neon pink, in keeping with the color scheme established by the Roald Dahl fan who owned this book before I did.
One of my favorite chapters is on the things that fall out of books. I know I’m always delighted to have a pressed leaf or flower fall out of the book I’ve opened. They remind me of my past. Hill’s books disgorge things like a postcard from Dirk Bogarde:
Dear Susan, I have just spent a happy afternoon at Penguin Books with my editor, drinking peppermint tea and trying to think of alternative words for “penis.”
Nope, can’t match that. The weightiest thing in my books might be forgotten bills.
This is a book with heart, not just because of its contents but because the physical copy I own has been well read, loved, perhaps shouted at, as I did when Hill went on a rant against e-readers. And I will concede this one point to her: No ebook could ever be so beautifully aged. People who insist on pristine copies miss a lot of the deeper beauty of a physical book.
I haven’t finished it yet, I probably will tonight, but I’m not sure that this won’t stand as my review of it in any event. I love it. I can’t imagine why it ended up in a used bookstore. Thank goodness for small miracles, eh? Unless Susan Hill insults me personally in an upcoming chapter (and even then, bragging rights) it’s not going anywhere else while I’m alive.