Rating: 3 stars
My husband bought me this memoir about reading for Christmas. I haven’t yet read any of Susan Hill’s novels, so I had no expectations. At the start of the book, Hill is looking for a book on her many bookshelves. As she tracks it down, she discovers that she has possibly 200 books that she hasn’t read. She also rediscovers books that she’d like to re-read. She decides to spend a year not buying new books and repossessing the books she already owns.
I own a lot of books, but not as many as Hill. I’m going to guess that 10% of the books I own are as yet unread. I used to be good at noting down which books I hadn’t read, but since my husband bought me a Kindle, buying books has become too easy. Keeping track of them doesn’t always happen. When I did an overdue audit of unread books in October last year and told my husband how many there were, I think it inspired this purchase. My list of books to read is big enough to fill my reading time for more than a year, so I’m trying as hard as I can to not add new books to the pile. I haven’t bought a new book since Christmas. I’ve still got book tokens from Christmas to spend. It’s hard.
As well as wanting to read the books she already owns, Hill also talks about wanting to cut down on the time she spends on the internet. She talks about the effect pre-packaged information delivered via the internet has on concentration, and the distractions of gossip and chatter. As the book progressed, though, I found it difficult to imagine Hill spending time online. She comes across as someone who, when not sitting in a comfortable chair reading, is actively out and about socialising with the literary friends she has gathered.
When talking about the pressure to buy endless newly published books, Hill grabbed my attention with this paragraph:
I did not begin my year of reading from home in order to save money, but of course that is what happened. I buy too many books, excusing impulse purchases on the vague grounds that buying a new paperback is better for me than buying a bar of chocolate. But that depends on the quality of the paperback. I wanted to reacquaint myself with old books and resist the pressure to buy something because it was new, because it was in the top twenty or shortlisted for the Booker Prize or even the Nobel, for that matter, or recommended by Richard and Judy or discounted, heavily promoted or chattered about on the internet.
I have been making similar impulse purchases recently. Since I started my book thoughts blog, actually. There’s an element of FOMO about it. I didn’t used to be like that. I used to ignore prize winners and the latest hype. My MO used to be: browse the new books shelf at the library and read the first paragraph, browse the islands of 3 for 2 and Staff Recommend books in the bookshop and read the first paragraph, find out what friends whose opinion I trust were reading. Now I read other people’s blogs and am exposed to a vast array of books. Other bloggers’ reviews are persuasive. I am surprisingly weak. I suspect that this is why my pile of books to read has become out of control. And so I am trying to get a grip. Knowing that this is a book about someone reading books I might not have read by authors I might not have encountered, I decided to steel myself against noting down books to explore.
Hill sets off on her voyage through her bookshelves. Each box she finds, each book pulled from a shelf is a trigger for a memory, centred around reading. Some of the memories I enjoyed more than others. I shared one moment with her when she recalls borrowing Gollancz published books from the library, with their bright yellow dust jackets adorned only by black and red lettering. It made me pull the ex-library stock copy of Hatter’s Castle from my own bookcase and brought back memories of my after school roaming the adult fiction section of the library where my mum worked, waiting for her to clock off, enjoying the splashes of Gollancz yellow on the shelves.
Hill talks about her early life through the books she read, the people she knew and the libraries she joined. She was lucky to be a young woman starting out as a writer in the 1960s, an age with a different understanding of celebrity, where a precocious teenager from Scarborough could have her first novel picked up for publication, could be taken under the wing of C P Scott, could encounter and easily befriend writers of stature without suspicion of her motives. Her student days spent among the stacks of the London Library, or at parties thrown by the Scotts, or being interviewed on book programmes, are littered with famous writers: T S Eliot, W H Auden, Edith Sitwell, E M Forster, Elizabeth David, Charles Causley, Elizabeth Jane Howard. Some encounters are brief, others are caustic, a few are rich with warmth and friendship. I envied her good fortune, but also found her a touch too pleased with herself over that good fortune.
While I enjoyed the way Hill wrote, and the trajectories she took when discovering books, that overarching sense of self-satisfaction along with the occasional expression of an objectionable opinion meant that I never quite warmed to her. She talks about how sad it is that men like Francis Kilvert and Lewis Carroll, who were open about their attraction to young girls, would be called paedophiles today, as though there was something innocent in their interest in children because they didn’t act upon it. She might have a point, but reading her opinion still turned my stomach. She also talks from a position of privilege about “the dreadful 1960s and 1970s, when the trade unions held such sway”. As though workers organising to obtain the right to decent working conditions and fair pay is regrettable because it made the privileged lives of some of her friends a little less easy. Talking about diarists, her logic of only trusting a writer if their opinion of someone she knows matches her own also seemed a bit rum to me. But then she says this:
I do not need to like my diarist but I want to find their company stimulating.
I was on the verge of closing my ears to her completely because of her irritating aspects, but decided to carry on and see if she became stimulating again. I’m aware that, in this age of social media and soundbites, I often allow my differences in opinion with people only encountered remotely to become intolerance. This is one reason we have the politics we currently do, because listening and debating has been shut down in favour of shouting loudly about our own opinion being right and not needing to consider anything different.
I’m glad I did read on, because Hill certainly provoked some thought. In working her way through her bookshelves, and remembering people she has known and books she has both loved and loathed, Hill considers the way she reads. What engages her and what turns her off. It made me think about how I read.
The chapter on diaries contains praise for Alan Clark and his self-awareness, a trait which for Hill means he writes other people well. It then contains criticism for Frances Partridge because she is coldly arrogant, dissects her close friends and presents people in a bad light, something which Hill finds repellent. This interested me because it’s Hill’s dissection of certain people and events and the cold arrogance of some of her opinions that made me find her occasionally repellent. Hill goes on to criticise James Lees-Milne for being
… the snob to end all snobs, vain, intemperate and intolerant, self-regarding and self-important.
Funny. I felt the same way about Hill. She comes to love Lees-Milne because his self-awareness is refreshing. I didn’t find much, if any, self-awareness in Hill, so although I eventually warmed to her, and enjoyed most of her company, I didn’t come to love her.
One thing I was drawn in by was her need to justify not reading classic texts like Don Quixote and War and Peace, or not getting classic authors like Jane Austen. It took me a good many years to get around to reading Don Quixote and War and Peace myself, but when I did I was pleased, because I loved them. Not because it felt like I’d achieved something or joined a club, but because they are wonderful stories. When I forced myself to start Tristram Shandy for the third time, my then boss asked me why. Part of the why was a feeling that I should read it, but more of the why was the tag that book was playing with me through the pages of other novels. On that third attempt, my deal was that if I didn’t crack it, it wasn’t for me. I did crack it, and enjoyed it immensely. Reading it enriched my appreciation of other books that reference it. That’s one of the joys of reading for me – the way books become interlinked because the author has read a certain book and been influenced by it. But I wouldn’t have had a problem with not cracking Tristram Shandy and consequently abandoning it. I had a Twitter conversation with someone a couple of months ago about whether I ever felt overwhelmed by the number of books in the world. My answer to that is no. I understand that I can’t possibly read everything, and the reason I read is for pleasure and escapism, so feeling overwhelmed is pointless. Reading’s not a competition. I’m not answerable to any weird book police that might be out there. We’re all different. Our life experiences, our personalities, our interests all mean that books work on our imaginations differently. It really doesn’t matter if you don’t get a particular author’s style, even if that author has been elevated in the collective consciousness to high status. It might make a conversation with someone who loves that author awkward, they might feel compelled to persuade you to love the author too, but ultimately it doesn’t matter. And there isn’t a special hell reserved for people who’ve read the wrong books, or have read them too slowly, because nobody is the writer of the reading rules. I don’t like the Brontës (with the exception of Villette, which is allegedly the wrong Brontë book to like) and I’ll never read the Harry Potter books because there are too many other books worth reading ahead of them in the queue. And it doesn’t matter that I won’t.
Another point of interest was Hill’s rumination on the longevity of authors, how they rise and fall with the tastes of readers and the fashions of the times. Contemporary novelists for her generation aren’t contemporary for mine, and those who are my contemporaries won’t be so relevant in the future is Hill’s basic theory. The nature of the novel will have changed. The theory emerges as part of a piece on how nobody reads Iris Murdoch any more, which I don’t think is strictly true.
In one sense, of course, Murdoch’s novels will not have changed. How can they? And yet they have, because until it is read a book is a dead thing, it must be resurrected every time it finds a new reader, and those who read Iris Murdoch in the future will be very different people from the ones who read her now. They will have been formed in times unlike our own and will have different frames of literary reference. The novel and the way it is written will have changed, too. I first read Iris Murdoch’s books as they were published. Novels were different then. People’s tastes were different. The world around us was different.
I was thinking about this in the run up to the publication of Paul Auster’s new novel, 4321. I read one review that said the novel was long-winded and self-indulgent. It acknowledged Auster’s influences, but still dismissed the book, which in an interview Auster said was the biggest book of his life, one which he expects to dominate his reputation when he is referenced in the future. I read a second review, by another author only a few years younger than Auster, and it was kinder, he seemed to understand better what Auster was attempting. The book is published on Tuesday. As much as I love Paul Auster, my book buying moratorium means I won’t be buying it just yet. But I will buy it and read it, because Auster is a contemporary writer for me in Hill’s sense that I tend to read his books when they are published, or not too long afterwards. But that first review I read made me wonder how relevant Auster is to people in their 20s, which is what I was when I first discovered his novels, or to people in their 30s, which is the period when I most avidly awaited the publication of his work.
And yet, what Hill says about future readers of Murdoch could apply to me as a reader of Hardy, Dostoevsky, Austen, Le Carré, anyone who lived in a different era to me and wrote about those times. It doesn’t, though. Human nature is human nature. We might have different comforts and commodities in our lives, we might use slightly different language to express ourselves, but at root humanity has changed little over its existence. A good writer understands people and puts people at the heart of their writing, so that the reader has someone to relate to, whether in liking or disdain. If you have that, the immediate contemporary concerns of the characters are simply set dressing.
Looking through anthologies sends Hill off on another of her tangents, this time about where is the best place to read a book. She considers whether Lytton Strachey is right, that certain books need to be read in certain places in order to enhance the reading experience. She cites David Cecil’s memory of reading Turgenev’s House of Gentle Folk in the foyer of a busy hotel. Hill doesn’t think reading location matters. I agree with her. I am a very visual reader. It’s one reason I sometimes struggle with film adaptations. When a writer is good, they give me just enough description to go on that I can build an interior world that I then occupy with the characters. Consequently, I can read pretty much anywhere, as long as I am immersed enough in the book. Tiredness and anxiety about real life being too present in my mind are the things that allow distractions to enter my reading brain. That’s when the too loud chatter of other people breaks my concentration, and the vagueness brought on by lack of sleep disrupts my ability to follow the thread of a book.
I loved what Hill says about slow reading, as well. I’ve noticed the same competitiveness that she comments on. I stopped doing the LibraryThing book challenge this year. There are two: the 50 Book Challenge and the 75 Book Challenge and I’ve been doing the 50 Book Challenge for the past couple of years. I found that, although I do read a lot quite naturally, and I’m more a chain reader than a fast reader, the challenge made me feel a little stressed at times. I’ve also decided that I won’t be doing a monthly round up on my blog this year. Nor will I be challenging myself too much about how widely I do or don’t read. This year is about pleasure and appreciation. I’ve noticed that I sometimes race through books because I think I need to get through them. As a result, I don’t appreciate them as deeply as I could. Hill expresses it well.
The best books deserve better. Everything I am reading during this year has so much to yield but only if I give it my full attention and respect it by reading it slowly. Fast reading of a great novel will get us the plot. It will get us names, a shadowy idea of characters, a sketch of settings. It will not get us subtleties, small differentiations, depth of emotion and observation, multilayered human experience, the appreciation of simile and metaphor, any sense of context, any comparison with other novels, other writers. Fast reading will not get us cadence and complexities of style and language. It will not get us anything that enters not just the conscious mind but the unconscious. It will not allow the book to burrow down into our memory and become part of ourselves, the accumulation of knowledge and wisdom and vicarious experience which helps to form us as complete human beings. It will not develop our awareness or add to the sum of our knowledge and intelligence. Read parts of a newspaper quickly or an encyclopaedia entry or a fast-food thriller, but do not insult yourself or a book which has been created with its author’s painstakingly acquired skill and effort, by seeing how fast you can dispose of it.
I wanted to cheer when I read that. I wanted to take a photograph of it and send it to the person who, in the same conversation about feeling overwhelmed by the number of books in the world, expressed with regret that they were “such a slow reader”. As I said at the time, and as I’ve said above, reading isn’t a competition. We read at our own pace, and it’s nobody else’s business whether that’s a book a year or a book a day. The important thing is to read and to gain something from it. Knowledge, an understanding of another’s experience, entertainment, diversion, whatever. I really like the idea that you’re insulting a book and its writer when you read it too quickly. Like wolfing down the meal someone has taken time to cook for you.
It also made me think about why I’ve become more competitive about reading. It’s another thing I didn’t used to be. I wonder whether it’s tied in with the feeling I have of needing to define myself, because I don’t feel I know who I am any more. It might be a facet of that drifting feeling I’ve had since my dad died and my mum’s decline into dementia accelerated. Being The One Who Reads has been my semi-conscious self-definition of who I am over the last couple of years. Or maybe it’s a control thing, because I feel that I have so little control over my life at the moment. Maybe how many books and how quickly I read is a thing I feel I can control.
Anyway. Enough about my personal angst. It’s at this point, in thinking about books she can read slowly, going over again to extract meaning, that Hill comes up with the idea of having only forty books left from her collection to read for the rest of her life. A supersized Desert Island Books, if you will. I decided to think about my own forty books. I’ve got to thirty-two, but I’m still thinking.
I have to thank Hill for unexpectedly persuading me to listen to Benjamin Britten. Her reminiscence about a music teacher who one week played the Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes to her music appreciation class, without any introduction, reminded me of my music teacher. She had a passion for Britten, putting on Noye’s Fludde every year, but she never infected me with it. She never infected me with a passion for anything and I dropped music as soon as I could. You don’t need to be taught something to be able to love it. Aged 14, I found Britten discordant and cacophonous, and decided that he wasn’t for me. Reading about why Hill loves his music made me search for the Sea Interludes on Spotify. I had to stop reading so that I could let those musical renderings of the sea transport me to seasides I’ve known, from childhood holidays at the Mawddach Estuary, university days in Aberystwyth, and day trips to Blackpool and Whitby, to weekends with friends in Brighton and Cardiff, and the personal misery I found living in Plymouth to be. Although I was born landlocked and have lived most of my life landlocked, I’ve always loved the sea. Staring out across water to the horizon calms me. Watching and shouting into a storm also, weirdly, calms me. There’s something about knowing how powerful it is and how helpless we are in the face of it that means I know where I am with the sea. If I could live anywhere, without thought of earning a living, it would be by the sea. Barmouth or Kamakura, I don’t mind. Not Plymouth, though. 16 months and 23 days was long enough, thanks. Those Sea Interludes, though. I’ve had Britten wrong all this time. Evening is one of the most romantic pieces of music I’ve ever heard.
By the end of the book, I’d failed in my aim to not note any book titles down. They’re all classic titles by authors I’ve not known where to start with, though, so I’ve decided that I’m allowed to have them on a list for future reference.
I enjoyed the book for the way it made me think about my reading. I enjoyed a fair amount of it for hearing Hill’s thoughts on reading. There wasn’t quite enough of anything though, neither autobiography nor literary insights, to make the book more than diverting. I found it a bit fragmented. But then, it is only 236 pages long. Hard to fit everything into that page count, I imagine.