Howard’s End is on the Landing, A Writer’s Reading Journey

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.

Susan Hill Reading YearHoward’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.

Conroy Reading LifeI 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?

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41 thoughts on “Howard’s End is on the Landing, A Writer’s Reading Journey

  1. Looking around I see books everywhere waiting to be read. Susan Hill’s year spent home reading from her collection is a dream I hope to start very soon! This genre ( writers commenting on their own favorite books) is new to me. I will put Howard’s End is on the Landing on my list! ( What a clever title!). Je découvre chaque fois quelquechose étonnant dans votre blog!

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  2. I agree with N@ncy. I love the title. I love some of the victorians too although there are many works I need to advance on my TBR. There are so many excellent modern works coming out though. I will be putting this book on my TBR with hopes it will inspire me to read all those classics I haven’t but also to maybe re-read a few. I have been toying with the idea of following one of the book tubers with reading all of Jane Austen’s books in the order in which she wrote them. Why not a little Northanger Abbey before April gets here. Hmmm….

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    • There is a lifetime of reading in here Deidre, even if she only chooses 40 to read in that one year – and she is a BIG re-reader as well, inspiring indeed.

      Don’t worry, we have a few more years to catch up on the classics while still making time for all the excellent contemporary works that will come out. Much as I love the classics, I do also appreciate the writing of our own time.

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      • Yes I love the writing of our time too but there are loads of classics I’d like to read and quite a few I’d like to re-read, but I’m going to have to stop stressing myself out about it. Read and enjoy whatever.

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  3. I haven’t read this one yet, but after reading your review, I definitely will. I’ve read Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, also about a reading journey, and thought it was wonderful.

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  4. I love your line… “books and reading tell us and others who we really are” That jumped out at me… Moments later the thought that I am barely making time to read anything lately jumped out at me… Followed by the thought of what that tells me about me… Hmmm… Moments later, I had to laugh at myself! Thanks!

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    • Well, you made time to come here and read those thoughts, and for me that’s what blogging is about, it feels like I don’t have much time to write, but I always manage to share something on here, there is nothing like a community of like-minded souls to keep up one’s motivation.

      And as for reading, well that’s a pastime that lasts a lifetime and it’s entirely natural that it’s cyclical. Sometimes a long, slow read is best.

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    • Isn’t it, I so looked forward to reading it and was kind of saving it and when the kindle died just as I had a 5 day visit to England planned, this was my book of choice. A nice, long slow read with short chapters, perfect for travel. And just love that list conveniently parked on the last 2 pages, so much easier to find than my turned down page references.

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  5. Actually, I started the year doing just that… but I got so distracted by new books or new interests coming out or creeping in almost every day that I got side-tracked. But, the read-along is meant to guard my original intention. Anyway, I’ve enjoyed your post, and my hats off to Susan Hill. I’m a very slow reader, so, tackling the 600 page Bonhoeffer bio is already a great achievement for me. And now Proust’s Swann’s Way. But I agree, we all have enough to read right in our own home. Would love to go visit Susan Hill’s home, that would be quite a literary adventure in itself.

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    • Proust is on my future TBR, the one that will exist when the kids leave home, reads that prefer not to be interrupted. I love to slow read, but dislike that it happens too often with books that don’t deserve it! Yes, a tour of Susan Hill’s bookshelves would be amazing – even a home made video 🙂 She’s certainly made them legendary!

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  6. Wonderful post, Claire! Susan Hill’s book on her reading year sounds quite fascinating. I would love to read it some day.

    I liked this sentence from the passage you have quoted – ‘I am restless for the twentieth century again’ 🙂 It is amazing that she has 743 books in just one bookshelf!

    I liked very much your observation that the only way to know whether we like a book / film is by reading / seeing it. I have found many times that I like a book which has got bad reviews by critics while at other times I haven’t liked a book which was critically acclaimed. I have a friend who reads reviews of a particular book first before reading the book. And if the review is not good he doesn’t read the book. And nearly with every book that we have discussed about, he agrees with the critic. I told him that sometimes he should be adventurous and pick a book on a whim and try reading it. Because I feel that is the only way we can discover some wonderful new treasures.

    Thanks for writing about Pat Conroy’s book ‘My Reading Life’. I haven’t read any of his fiction works because I have been intimidated by their size, but I have seen the film version of ‘Prince of Tides’ and liked it very much. I hope to read the book someday. ‘My Reading Life’ sounds like a fascinating book from your description. I will look for it.

    Glad to know that you liked my review of Nicole Brossard’s book. Thanks for the link 🙂

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    • Thank you for your kind words Vishy and I am happy to introduce you to a couple of wonderful works which summarise a lifetime of reading by two great writers.

      I don’t really mention much about Susan Hill’s fiction, but since I discovered her work a couple of years ago, I have enjoyed every one of her books and appreciate all she can get across with few words, her novellas A Kind Man, The Beacon and In the Springtime of the Year are excellent and all favourites. I think you will love her prose too.

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      • Thanks for the recommendations, Claire. I love the titles of all the Susan Hill novels that you have recommended – especially ‘In the Springtime of the Year’. I can’t wait to read them.

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  7. delicious post as usual,,, making me itch to read all the books you mention. Susan Hill’s sounds a must, I so love reading about books as well as reading the books, and reading other people’s thoughts and re-actions so often givers me a deeper understanding and insight into the book – which is why I LOved Lionel trilling writing about Jane Austen…
    And now I wish I’d kept Virginia Woolf’s diaries. When we moved into our little cottage by the sea, I did a determined clean-out and among others, sold all my dozens of Bloomsbury books by them and about them etc, for a pound each. I could never replace them now, and so often I long to re-read something … a salutary lesson in not being ruthless about books!

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    • Thank you Valerie, I think it is a privilege for us to have access to these readerly thoughts by writers who are prolific readers.

      Oh my, I almost stopped breathing when you said you’d sold those books for a pound each – I guess when books are contemporary we have little idea what their future value might be. Well I hope that Virgina Woolf’s diary might find it’s way back to you, it does like a great bedside companion. Or do you already have another volume of something else that has been your inspirational equivalent? I love that little interview that is always on the back page of Mslexia magazine, ‘One the Bedside Table’ where writers and artists share what’s on the nightstand. I know I have a few that are permanently there 🙂

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  8. I haven’t read any of these books. Maybe I should first say that I actually didn’t know of this genre. But the idea of writing about the books one has read or taking the time out to read books (perhaps within a specific genre of interest) and then commenting on those books afterwards sound like it could be a lot of fun. Though, I feel many writers do this, however consciously or unconsciously. Great post!

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    • Writing about a lifetimes reading and the great anecdotes that often go with that is fascinating indeed and I enjoyed both these books, Susan Hill’s and Pat Conroy’s. They have had a pretty good head start on us, so not surprising you haven’t read the books, I tend to read more contemporary books of our own time than classics, but always open to being tempted by a good review.

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  9. I love books about books. Last year I read Tolstoy In the Purple Chair about the solace that books can offer in times of need. Every day is a time of need, in my opinion. That’s why I read every day. Thanks for all the great book suggestions!

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    • Yes, what I didn’t mention was that of the 743 books on that shelf, 445 are by men, up a flight of stairs, another shelf with 66 books, of which 51 are by women – and then there are the 113 books by or about Virginia Woolf… books, books, books

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  10. I can definitely endorse ‘A Writer’s Life’. It was my first encounter with Woolf’s journals and I went on to buy and read (twice) the entire collection. If you read the abridged version I’ll be surprised if you can avoid doing the same. I love Susan Hill’s book. I think it’s just spending time in the company of another reader which is so attractive. I haven’t come across the Conroy, but will definitely seek it out.

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    • The Conroy is a real gem and just as good as Susan Hill’s book and with a whole lot of different recommendations and anecdotes, but equally brilliant.

      I am looking forward to the diary AND the diaries, now that you’ve alerted them to me!

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  11. Oh I too loved Susan Hill’s book about books. It almost felt deliciously naughty, as if I was hiding in her house, rooting through her shelves, spying on her life, never mind that it was she herself who opened the door to me when her wonderful book landed in my grateful hands! And like Susan I too absolutely love Virginia Wolff’s A Writer’s Diary – a continuous source of inspiration. I am planning / dreaming of treating myself to the Persephone edition…..actually I want all their books upon my shelves…who needs food?!
    BTW I left a sort-of open letter to you and Julie on Julie’s site in the comment section to her ‘Five Favourite Books’ post http://chalkthesun.wordpress.com/2013/04/02/answering-a-challenge-five-favorite-reads/
    Any ideas on what’s the best way to share e-mail addresses?

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    • Thanks Edith, when I first checked this link, your letter wasn’t up yet and I neglected to come back and read it. As I am just getting round to posting 5 favourite books I have revisited and am reading it now. Thanks you for the suggestions, they are inspiring and I look forward to seeking out Tania’s blog as well.

      When someone comments on one of your blog posts, if you view the comments via the dashboard, you will see there the email address of the commenter. Feel free to email me anytime.

      Yes, Virginia’s Woolf’s diaries and many of Persephone’s books would make a wonderful collection!

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  12. Pingback: A Quiet Obsession | Word by Word

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