A Book Book Lovers Will Love

Howard’s End is on the Landing: A Year of reading From Home
Susan Hill (Author of The Woman in Black)
Profile Books, 2009/2010
236 Pages
Reviewed by: Deborah K. Engelke/Time & Again Books & Tea, Oswego, NY

OSWEGO, NY – I love books! I would stake my life that a lot of people know this! The written word has intrigued and beguiled me since I first started to read at age 6.

Back in the post-World War II era, children played outside prior to going to school. There was no Head Start back then, nor what was felt to be a need for it. Right or wrong. So we almost all, without exception, began to read for the first time in first grade.

Those kids who actually had kindergarten, spent their half-day learning to socialize with children who were not members of their immediate family, or close neighbors. In other words, they pursued physical play, with a nap and a snack thrown into the bargain!

After initial trepidation, I too, learned to decipher the strange symbols which were letters. Soon I was off and running, literally absorbing hundreds of books a year.  If I didn’t have a book to read, I would read whatever I found: comics/magazines/even cereal boxes, so starved was I for words, words and more words.

To this day, I love the feel of books, the smell of the new or old paper, the silkiness or roughness of the boards which cover them. So it is with sadness that I look upon a future without books in the format in which they’ve been found since their earliest incarnation hundreds of years ago. I wonder if when books were bound together, did the illustrating scroll artist feel the same way I do now, the loss of something emotionally and artistically satisfying?

In this time of publishing flux (paper vs. electronic media), I find it nice to encounter a sympathetic soul in Susan Hill, the UK author of the critically-acclaimed work of gothic horror, The Woman in Black (1983). Although Ms. Hill, as an editor and author, would never discourage another reader from purchasing new books, she decided to take a second look at the volumes she had accumulated in her own home, and to write about this experience.

As with most of us who love all things print, she has a houseful of books she’s collected over the course of her lifetime. It was the reintroduction to many familiar titles, as well as the discovery of new authors and stories she’d shelved or been distracted from in the course of her long writer life that drove her to spend one full year exploring only the books in her own home.

Hill terms “books on a shelf, dead things … but also a chrysalis, (or) an inanimate object packed with the potential to burst into new life”.

At the same time she made the decision to read her own books, she also decided to forgo the internet, viewing it as often distracting chatter ABOUT books which doesn’t necessarily enhance the reader experience. So, she strictly “rationed” her internet time as well.

There have been many “books about books” over the centuries since reading took hold of the average citizen. At one time only scholars: religious and academic, read. The rest of the citizenry might be read to, of course, but this might tamper with the author’s intention, I believe. For centuries the majority of the populace might not have the necessary skills to read, so the middle man reading to them was the only choice they had.

Soon after the common man began to read there surfaced marvelous books by writers who described their reading experiences. I would categorize this book by Hill as in the same vein as those books mentioned in the diaries of familiar authors such as the literary author,  Virginia Woolf, or in the non-fiction by popular writer, Stephen King. Readers often read books on books to discover how their favorite writers view the authors they read.

It was for much the same reason that I purchased, and immediately jumped into, Susan Hill’s memoir (well, sort of) on her reading life. I wanted to discover more about the personality of MY new favorite writer, but also, more books like hers that I might enjoy, if I only knew they existed! I LOVE a good ghost story. Not the gross-out blood baths that pass for horror these days, but the old-fashioned tales of the likes of Edgar Allen Poe, or Sheridan LaFanu, or Henry James. If it doesn’t bring a chill to my spine on even the warmest summer afternoon, or tingle my fingers as I turn the page, any time, it’s not quite ‘it’ for me.

Susan Hill’s works bring exactly that sensation. Again and again!

Howards End is on the Landing did not disappoint me. I liked what I learned about Hill. Like Stephen King’s Secret Windows: Essays and Fiction on the Craft of Writing (2000), and Danse Macabre (1981) which featured many of the same articles (doesn’t hurt to recycle the good stuff), Hill speaks directly to the reader. ME. It is this intimacy that brings her memories to life for me. I can almost feel the pop-up books she shared with her children, carefully folded just out of the reach of tiny hands, but savored by child and parent alike. I chuckled or weeped at stories of the author’s whose celebrity touched Susan Hill in her early writer life, but whom I will never personally meet. Almost voyeuristically, I felt that I, too, was discovering the personal quirks of Hill’s favored authors in whom often gifted writing did not necessarily make for a particularly sociable or pleasant personality. This, Hill gently shared with me, her reader.

Mostly, I came away with what I expected. I got to know Susan Hill, the writer, a bit better. I came to respect her reading choices, as well as why she decided to pass over others. Well, most of the time. She spent several paragraphs on my favorite author, which surprised me slightly. I hadn’t thought of my fav. as necessarily part of the gothic horror genre that Susan Hill is famous for.  Now I recognize that Jean Rhys might have indeed influenced the early writings of Susan Hill, and why I enjoy them both so much.

Finally, Hill has given me permission to ‘own’ my books: to fold pages, underline popular phrases, to read, and reread favorite stories until the copies fall apart.

It is in gazing with affection at the books on her bookshelves (and maybe the piles on the landing, or under an unused hall table which began her personal quest), that without regret opens the door to the rediscovery of worlds and stories we all might “almost” have lost.  Books on a shelf may be a dead thing, but they can be awakened and brought back to life with the touch of a hand.

Electronic readers don’t have the personalities of worn leather spines, riffled cardboard covers, or the lovely art on pristine new volumes. “Somewhat monotonous-looking and made of grey plastic..(with a screen)” E-Readers, just can’t call either of us to open them in the same way. I hope it is a very long time before plastic screens take the places of paper pages.