There is much to love in books about a reading journey, just as there is in an exhibition of a well-known painter’s own personal collection, especially when those collections include the work of their friends and personal anecdotes.
Susan Hill certainly comes up with many personal anecdotes of interactions with some of her favourite writers as well as some ‘I almost met…’ which made me laugh because with each of those non-encounters, she says the same thing, that most likely she would have had nothing to say anyway. I am sure that would not have been the case, being so widely read, she would be able to find common ground with almost any great writer, though ever humble a writer be of their own work perhaps in the presence of an idol.
Howard’s End is On The Landing is Susan Hill’s account of a year spent reading from home, her collection easily the size of a small library from the way I read it, one bookshelf alone contains 743 books and this a country house of many rooms where books have snaked their way up the stairs across the walls and had bespoke shelves made to measure for hard to fit nooks and crannies.
At the end of the book, she includes a list of the final forty; it’s a page I refer back to often as her journey of short chapters includes picking up an author’s many works and often struggling to decide which one should go on the list. She loves her Victorians, perhaps more than anything, so Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Anthony Trollope, George Eliot and Emily Bronte are all there.
I have spent a long time among the Victorians this winter but the year is on the turn, the first spring crocuses are pushing up through the grass. It is not yet warm, there are no leaves on the trees but just perceptibly the nights are drawing out.
I am restless for the twentieth century again. Upstairs then, to the landing. Why Forster sits next to Graham Greene, or Anita Brookner is tucked in beside V.S. Naipaul, let alone why they are interspersed with odd volumes of the Finn Family Moomintroll, is one of the mysteries of the reading life.
It doesn’t really matter whether I have read the books or not, it is not only recognition of similar books we may read, it is as much about sharing the joy of reading, its ability to provoke, to uplift, to question. It is the consequence of reading and the confirmation of how different we all are in these observations that continues to prove the reality, that somewhere out there that same book will have been both adored by one person and despised by the next.
Just this morning I read a passionate review by Vishy the Knight of Nicole Brossard’s Yesterday, At the Hotel Clarendon in which he describes the effect of reading prose that to him was sublime, lush, delightful, transcendent, luscious, intoxicating. Well, I don’t know about Brossard’s prose, but I was enjoying Vishy’s. He went on:
After reading a particular passage and falling in love with it, I thought that this was it. Now Brossard will get back to business and get on with the story. And then followed another intoxicating passage. And then another. And another. It was the kind of intoxication that one gets while listening to classical music, the kind which is pleasurable but on which one never gets drunk. Nicole Brossard is also a poet and it shows in her prose. I want to read this novel again just for Brossard’s prose.
Then, at the end of his review, he mentions he was able to find two other reviews of the book in Canadian literary magazines and only one review on Goodreads, which said “I just can’t stand this book anymore.” Just like films, the only way to really know is to see or read it yourself! And as I alluded to in my previous post, books and reading tell us and others who we really are. As for me, I trust Vishy’s judgement, I love lyrical prose.
Susan Hill’s book is very much influenced by the English tradition and I feel compelled to balance that a little by mentioning another book in a similar vein which I adored, Pat Conroy’s A Reading Life.
I have only read one of Pat Conroy’s books, The Prince of Tides, but would not hesitate to read more, especially as a summer read –they do tend to be big, bold, compelling books, great for a summer read. His reading life unfolds by the chapter in a mesmerising, delightful way, his storytelling and anecdotes within the book are captivating.
He is loyal to certain influential bookish people in his life and they often reappear throughout the chapters. The chapter on the influence of his mother and references to both the book and film of Gone With the Wind is a great story in itself. But my favourite chapter and one that has stayed with me in the years since I first read this, was Chapter Eleven A Love Letter to Thomas Wolfe, because he is so honest and appreciative, ignoring intellectual snobbery and sharing what he describes as a pivotal event of his life – his reading of Look Homeward, Angel and though not knowing it at the time, entering into “the home territory of what would become my literary terrain”.
I have read very good reviews of Will Schwalbe’s book The End of Your Life Bookclub and know that one day I will venture into its pages, but have been warned, this one is a real tearjerker, so timing is important. There is no rush, just many future reading pleasures that will lead to even more.
And the one stand out book from Susan Hill’s reading year, that made me decide I must have a copy? Well, it’s not even on the list, but that’s because it seems to be permanently at her beside and I see Persephone Books have reissued a copy of it as well. It was Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary.
I have never exhausted A Writer’s Diary, and never will.It gave me what I needed at 16, and it continues to give.
Have you read any of these books, or do you have another favourite book of a writer’s reading journey?