Now I know everyone in the blogosphere has been talking about this ad yawneam so I’ll start by saying I hope I have written a take on Howard’s End is on the Landing that is different enough to other reviews to hold your interest. If I haven’t, I apologise in advance.
What attracted me to this book? Why was I so keen to get my hands on it that I went as far as preordering it, paying full price for a new hardback – something I never do? I think it was partly because the subtitle was so intriguing – ‘a year of reading from home’. I have longed to do this for a while; to curb my habit of accumulating more and more and more books, of guiltily watching the piles of books I know I won’t have time to read this year, let alone this month, grow and grow and grow into unwieldy, dangerous, tottering piles that are slowly covering the floor of my bedroom. I was excited to read of how this process might be worked through…how the cravings for book buying, for browsing in book shops, for just seeing if they have that one book I’ve been looking for, no others, just that one, I’ll just pop in, honestly…might be tackled and overcome. I was hoping to find an inspirational and encouraging set of musings on the joys of being able to read, guilt free, not constantly watching the growing TBR pile and feeling paralysed with shame at the lack of willpower possessed to reduce it; of the pleasure of meandering one’s way through the accumulated volumes amassed throughout a lifetime, of the pressures one feels to read new books, and what it is like to immerse yourself in a library that is completely disconnected from the current literary scene.
In short, I wanted this book to be the proverbial kick up the backside I need to freeze my library for a year and actually read what I own. I have enough unread books to last me at least a year; probably even two or three. I work full time, have lots of commitments outside of work, and a diary that manages to fill up every day of a week before Monday has even started. In short, I have a busy life. I rarely have an hour ‘spare’ to sit and read these days, which means I simply can’t get through all the books I buy in any given month, let alone the ones I bought the previous month. Unless I stop accumulating, I will just never get around to reading them all. And that would be a great shame. So, a book that truly is about ‘a year of reading from home’ is what I need. Sadly, Howard’s End is on the Landing is not that book. I wouldn’t say the subtitle was deliberately misleading, as I obviously chose to read into it what I wanted it to be, but at the same time, I did feel that this was much more ‘Susan Hill Gives Her Opinions on Book Related Topics’ rather than an exploration of what it means to spend a year reading from home; the timescale is never mentioned, and neither is the process of avoiding books from outside the home.
Where to begin. This book is kind of like those essays you used to have to write at school or university, with impossible questions that don’t make a lot of sense, so instead of actually answering the question, you just write down everything you know about, say, Jane Austen, and hope for the best. I feel that rather than discussing a year of reading from home, as the title of the book would surely command, Susan Hill has just written down everything she thinks about books and book publishing and famous people who wrote books that she may have met, or bumped into, or had things dropped on by, and bound it in hardcover and a pretty jacket with a catchy title and demanded £12.99 of people’s hard earned money for it. I laughed when she said she was avoiding the internet for a year to get away from ‘book-related gossip and chatter’, for essentially, in Howard’s End is on the Landing, she has written an entire book of book related gossip and chatter. Glamourising this book by calling it a ‘memoir’ is simply unfair on potential readers, as this is really just a physical version of Susan Hill’s blog, and is therefore one of the here today, gone tomorrow ‘non books’ she so derides.
Unlike other bloggers, I don’t mind that Susan Hill has strong opinions; I actually quite liked her musings and admire her for her ability to make public sweeping, generalised, and totally biased statements without caring a jot for what other people will think. Canadian and Australian literature are dismissed as unreadable, Jane Austen she doesn’t ‘get’, forgotten Renaissance drama must be rubbish in order to have become forgotten, and many other atrocious, non politically correct, opinionated comments that are just the sort I love reading. We’re all entitled to our opinions, after all. If Susan Hill wants to ignore the richness of an entire nation’s writing, that’s her prerogative. If she can’t see the genius in Jane Austen, that’s alright with me. It won’t lessen my enjoyment of either. And I think that was really what I had the most problem with about this book; at the end of the day; I don’t care what Susan Hill thinks. Her ‘top 40’ books at the end of this scattered volume of bookish thoughts is just a list of what one woman deems worthy of reading. Susan Hill has suggested elsewhere that authority comes from being published – that bloggers don’t have the authority to write negative reviews because no one has given them the right to do so. Their opinions are not worthy of note. As much as I disagree with this, the point of who gives people the authority to have an opinion is worth drawing out.
In books such as this, which are a collection of someone’s opinions, those opinions have no authority unless someone chooses to give them authority. I give my mum’s opinions authority because she’s my mum and she knows me and I know her and I know she’s always, annoyingly, right. I don’t know Susan Hill as a person, she doesn’t know me, I don’t particularly rate her as a novelist, and just because she says W G Sebald is amazing, it doesn’t necessarily make him so. Therefore, a book composed of what Susan Hill has told me I should and shouldn’t read is actually rather useless to me, as I don’t give her opinion any authority when it comes to influencing my reading choices. I’m not going to beat myself up and call myself ignorant for not having read most of Susan Hill’s top 40; frankly, anyone who chooses Wuthering Heights over Jane Eyre or who doesn’t ‘get’ Persuasion won’t share the same tastes as me and their reading preferences are therefore of no interest or relevance to me whatsoever.
Books such as this, that attempt to tell people what they should read, and give lists of best most amazing life changing top 10 books ever, and what you need to read in order to be an interesting and intelligent human being, are always a pointless exercise, as what gives the author the right to impose these ‘standards’ of reading on anyone? What makes one person’s ‘top 10’ more authoratitive than another’s? I don’t buy Susan Hill’s belief that someone choosing to publish your list gives it authority – authority is subjective and is earned by respect, and as I don’t have the knowledge of Susan Hill to give her the respect I would need to actually be bothered by the fact she says I should read books I haven’t, Howard’s End is on the Landing was a bit of a waste of my time.
I’m not saying it wasn’t enjoyable or that it was badly written; for what it was, a subjective collection of thoughts from a woman who has had an interesting, and literary life, it was fine. I like to be exposed to other people’s opinions, and to be introduced to new authors. Happily I don’t normally have to pay for the privilege, because there are blogs that serve this purpose that I can read freely every day. The thing is, Howard’s End is on the Landing isn’t profound, it isn’t lyrical, it isn’t a wonderful, timeless and evocative exploration of what literature means to us. I wasn’t nodding in agreement or thinking ‘yes! that’s so what I do!’ in lots of places. It was a very personal, and exclusive, sort of book, not really inviting reader involvement. This is no Ex Libris. It isn’t really a memoir, either, and even if it was, Susan Hill hasn’t done anything particularly of note to make me want to read a memoir of hers anyway. So I was disappointed, overall, and am inclined to say that Susan Hill only got this published because she is Susan Hill. Reading this has been akin to having a conversation about books with a total stranger; it’s been interesting, at times infuriating, at times illuminating, but mostly, forgettable, and will have no influence on my reading life. But, if you love Susan Hill, and rate her opinions, it just might be your cup of tea and open up new reading worlds for you. I hope, for some, that it does, but it certainly didn’t for me.