Howard’s End is on the Landing by Susan Hill

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.

26 comments

  1. What a good review Rachel, and definitely worth adding to the canon of reviews about HEIOTL. Your sentence "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." really sums up what I felt I think (but couldn't quite articulate!). Sorry you didn't get your proverbial kick though!

  2. *loud round of applause for Rachel*You certainly had a different take on this and something else to offer that wasn't another ad yawneam review. I enjoyed it a lot.Personally I am sick and bloody tired of reading about Susan Hill and find it particularly galling that we bloggers -of whom she apparently has such a low opinion- are the ones publicising a book that isn't particularly good. Yes, I took offense at some of the things she wrote but I'll forget about them by next month, providing I can avoid any further blog post about a book that isn't deserving of them (of course only in my opinion – bloggers can write about what they wish just as I can read the posts I wish). Your post was refreshing and perhaps you should write the book that we were expecting this one to be!

  3. Between yours and Claire's and Thomas's reviews, I'm now convinced this is not a book for me. The particular things I want to see in this book are the ones that the three of you say are not in it (the actual year-of-reading journal). So thanks, Rachel. But so sad you had to buy the hardcover full price and didn't love it.😦

  4. I have been seeing a lot of discussion on this book but that was probably the best post I have read on the subject. I am with Rachel, loud round of applause.

  5. You express yourself tremendously well, Rachel. I haven't got around to reading this book yet…it's on my shelf.

  6. Oh dear. The more I read about this book the more it sounds like a very opinionated blog with comments closed. And definitely not one I'd add to my feed reader.

  7. I'm so glad I didn't order this book. It was in my book depository basket and I've cancelled it since I've read the round of more negative reviews. That was a really interesting review Rachel. I'm still interested to see Hill's list of deserted island books though. By the way, I love your new background!

  8. I agree with you about strong opinion. I didn't have a problem with that aspect of the book. Being as opinionated as I am, it would be the height of hypocrisy to fault her for that.Plus, raise your hand it you also wanted the book because the cover art is soo darn good.

  9. Okay, yeah, definitely will be giving this one a miss. I haven't cared for the few of Susan Hill's books I've started reading, and although I love reading books about reading, they are always more fun when I agree with what the author is saying. 😛

  10. It's in my online shopping basket, but I still haven't clicked the 'complete purchase' button. Thank you for this very thoughtful, honest review. It's obvious that the book isn't what I had originally expected. I do think I'll read it eventually, but will wait until it's available through libraries over here.BTW, I just love your new blog wallpaper!

  11. fab review – I haven't read this yet but have been reading all the blogging activity about it. It is a shame that it is not what the blurb says – a year of reading from home – what most readers love is to poke their nose into other people's reading habits and bookshelves. It has now become the Da Vinci Code for me – I know I am not going to like it but I have to read it to add muscle to my argument. I am absolutely NOT going to buy it though but I am going to ask for Ex Libris for Christmas on your recommendation.

  12. I like your review. I have to admit I also really liked the book, I can see myself giving it as a present to any number of people, hoping they will react to it in the same way as I did. I will say though that I expected the final list to be of books read by the end of the year rather than books not to be without, and a book which was actually about a year of reading from home would be interesting.Some of the negative comments on paperback readers blog after reviewing this suggested that as Susan Hill had written more books than she had her opinion was automatically less valid, and I like the way that you pick up on that. When it comes to books and booksales surely the reading customers opinion counts? Without our money and time there is no publishing industry, so like you sayRachel, you've earned (and payed) for your right to an opinion.

  13. Well done Rachel! Your review was insightful without being snipey. I feel no need to purchase this, but if I happen upon it years from now for not too much, I just may. And I adore your new background! Pink and green is my favorite color combination.🙂

  14. What a great, comprehensive review! My copy of this book just arrived last week and despite some of the reviews I have read about it I am still looking forward to reading it. I will see how I go!

  15. Verity – Thank you. I'm glad you agree about the blog aspect – personally I found it more than a bit cheeky that we were expected to pay for something that isn't really anything other than a collection of blog posts.Claire – Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed it. I agree – I'm sure she's loving all of this publicity, but at the same time, what I love about the blogosphere is that none of us have any alterior motives and can say what we think without feeling the pressure to write a glowing review. I'm so glad I had your review and Verity's and Thomas's and so on to read so I knew this wasn't going to be the book for me before I'd even read it – it lessened the disappointment. Perhaps I will write that book!!Claire – Thanks for the sympathy! I think if you wanted what I wanted from this, then definitely don't waste your time or money.Book Pusher – Thank you so much!Darlene – Thank you! I hope you enjoy it more than me!Jane – You summed it up perfectly!!! I would avoid unless you adore Susan Hill…which I suspect you don't!Astrid – Thank you! I wouldn't bother ordering it – more a book to borrow than buy in my opinion. If you borrow it, then if you like it, you could buy your own copy later. Try before you buy! SO glad you like the background – all thanks to you!Thomas – Yes, I would have been a big fat hypocrite if I'd have criticised her for her opinions!I am raising my hand – it WAS mainly the cover!Jenny – Exactly. These sorts of books need to have an affinity with the reader in order to work and this just didn't have that engagement with my own personal experience of reading that it needed.JoAnn – Yes, wait for the library. Glad you love the wallpaper – I wasn't sure at first but now I really like it!Naomi – Thank you! Hope you are enjoying it…can't wait to hear your opinions! You will LOVE Ex Libris!Desperate Reader – the joy of books is that one person's trash is another's treasure. I'm glad you loved it! And thank you for your agreement on the authority issue – the way some people say others have more 'right' to an opinion because they're getting paid to give it really bothers me – everyone's opinion is always equally valid, whether they are an anonymous blogger or a Pulitzer prize winner.Heather – Thank you very much! Glad you like the background – I felt the need for a change and I was worried it might put people off so thanks for saying you like it!Karen – Thank you very much! I can't wait to read your opinions – I hope you enjoy it more than I did!

  16. I have to admit I was sorely tempted by this book – mainly for the beautiful cover art. But I am so glad that I didn't go through with my purchase as it does not sound like the book I was "hoping" it would be either.I want to read the book you described yourself – when are you going to write it as I would definitely buy that one – along with some beautiful cover in the style of your blog wallpaper?And everyone should have a copy of Ex Libris – I am hoping Fadiman will write another like that ….You have written a great review here. Well done.

  17. I liked the book a lot, didnt love it, but did like it a lot and I do rate Susan Hill but thats whats fab we all have different views. I loved this post you have pointed out the flaws without slating it and thats nice to see. I liked this book because it made me think about books and my attitudes to and habits with books and reading. I am now seriously debating if I could not buy a single book next year and survive on what I own, the library and gifts! Honestly.Also loving the wallpaper, fabulous!

  18. Samantha – Hello! Thanks for dropping in! Yes I think a lot of people were expecting a different book entirely…I would be delighted to oblige and write said book, if only I could go through with a year of not buying! Perhaps a book to write on the subject would give me the impetus I need…Glad you love the wallpaper! Thank you for your lovely comments.Simon – I know, I love that we all differ – it makes the world a more interesting place! I am glad that we have a mutual love of Wilkie Collins though!Yes, me too on the year's survival…I am actually planning an international move next year so I am going to have to curb the book buying whether I like it or not…I can't take them all with me!Glad you love the wallpaper…a risky move that appears to have paid off I think!

  19. I really appreciate how clearly you reviewed this book. Because it's not available here yet, and so I can't pick it up in a store and flip through it, all I've had to go on is blog recommendations. And because of that, I too was thinking this book would be like Ex Libris and was very excited. I will probably end up flicking through it when it finally comes out here, but I certainly won't waste birthday gift cards ordering it from the UK, as I had intended. Thank you for such a thorough and honest review. (Also, lovely background!)

  20. Makedo – Thank you! Don't waste your money, no – I'd borrow it from the library first if I were you. I could have bought several used books for the price of my copy and it still makes me mad to think of it!Glad you like the background!

  21. That's a really good review. Loved the bit about mums always being right – Annoyingly enough, I find that to be true as well. What is the deal with mums?! In theory, the idea of reading books of my own shelf is amazing, but I don't think I'd be able to do it for a whole year, to be perfectly honest, and hats off to Susan Hill for doing it. And the book does have a gorgeous cover. Thanks for the review though – I haven't been impressed by the one Susan HIll I've read, and I don't think I'll be going near this book.

  22. Well I have havered over this book. I have read some of Susan HIll and enjoyed very much what I have read and I am particularly fond of her Simon Serrailer mystery novels which I think are excellent. I have read so many reviews of this and, on consideration, I think I will reserve this at the library!Not very happy with her views on bloggers – surely if we read and dislike a book and are able to write why in a reasoned way (not just Oh I HATE this book..) then the fact that we have read it gives us authority so express an opinion? Just a thought.

  23. Anothercookie -Thank you! No, I doubt I could do it either…it would take significant levels of willpower! The book does have a gorgeous cover, yes…but it's not worth buying just for that!Elaine – My thoughts exactly, Elaine! I was quite incensed by her comments if I'm honest – as long as a review is thoughtful and well considered and reasoned then it is just as valid as any one else's opinion, published author, Cambridge Professor or average man on the street all included. It's ridiculous to say anything otherwise, I think!I'll be VERY interested to read your review Elaine, as I always value your opinion!

  24. A late comment here. After posting my own review of HEIOTL I looked for others and discovered your blog for the first time. I love it! And you like Ann Bridge.

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