Every book blogger should read this memoir at some point. I don’t remember when I first came across the title but it’s been in the back of my mind to read for quite some time, but funnily enough never made it to my to-be-read list. (Book bloggers, this may be contentious, but if you don’t want to read the post at least check out a quote on book bloggers and modern reading in the middle of the post and the following paragraph.)
This is one of my ‘take a break from challenges and read whatever I want novels’ and so counts for nothing other than a great book and a good source for future books to read. (If you read Howards End is on the Landing, be prepared for your to-be-read and to-be-re-read lists to grow dramatically.) Prior to reading this novel I knew nothing about Susan Hill, but having finished the novel I feel like I know her a little better, or could at least hold a conversation with her. There is something very intimate about publicly sharing your list of 40 books you would keep if you could only keep 40 for the rest of your life.
According to Wikipedia (gasp), Susan Hill is an English author of fiction and non-fiction works. Her novels include The Woman in Black, The Mist in the Mirror and I’m the King of the Castle for which she received the Somerset Maugham Award in 1971. I find it funny it doesn’t list The Bird of Night, a short listed Man-Booker Prize novel and won the Whitbread Awardr in 1972. Nor does it mention the most interesting fact that her first novel, The Enclosure, was published when she was only 18!
So aside from the fascinating author, which yes I’ve added at least two of her books to my list, the memoir itself was a good read. Her turns of phrase and unique way of thinking about books are clearly evident by the sheer number of additional quotes I have in this post. But there was one passage which I thought stuck out particularly as I am writing this on a blog and I feel a lot of times we, all book bloggers, get bogged down in challenges and numbers.
“A strange competitiveness has emerged among some readers in the last few years. I have known book-bloggers boast of getting through twenty books plus, a week, as if they were trying for a place in the Guinness Book of Records. Why has reading turned into a form of speed dating? And then there is fashion and the desire to have the very latest book – which doesn’t matter a scrap so long as the book is wanted for itself, not just because it is the one everybody is talking about, and so long as plenty of other, unfashionable books are desired as well.” (171)
And I can’t help but agree with her. Not long after this, or just before this, she spends a good few pages discussing slow reading and how she’ll read 2-3 chapters at a time and then go back and re-read them and then look at how their structured.
I want this. I want to take the time to read some of the great novels I’ve read at my normal steady pace. I’m always amazed at how much I do retain, but imagine if I went back and read those that I really enjoyed, At Swim, Two Boys, Northanger Abbey, Wuthering Heights to name a few, what more would I get from them? Perhaps I’ll spend next year only reading books I’ve read or those currently in my house, perhaps not. (I’m seriously thinking of a challenge based on this book _______ is on the shelf 2013 where you fill in the blank and then spend a set amount of time only reading from those books you already own. Sort of like Mount TBR, but including re-reads.)
Overall I enjoyed the book and it made me think about reading and book blogging in a different way. However, there were two things that bothered me 1) you couldn’t tell if she wrote this after she’d read everything or if she wrote throughout the year; and 2) about halfway through the novel Hill randomly mentions Desert Island Discs where if you’re stuck on an island what would you take. Hill puts a limit of 40 books and then starts discussing her thought process.
This idea could have been awesome if she did it from the beginning of the work or completely discussed the list, but it sort of came across as an oh wait I know how I’ll talk about my novel and that irked me. The rest of the novel was great and ambled through her house and the various rooms where she stores books. She did close the novel with her complete list.
Recommendation: See above. If you’re a reader or a book blogger you NEED to read this book. If you’re not, you could find it interesting, but probably not love it as much as those of us who read/blog on a regular basis.
Opening Line: “It began like this. I went to the shelves on the landing to look for a book I knew was there. It was not. But plenty of others were and among them I noticed at least a dozen I realised I had never read.”
Closing Line: “I read until the sun moves round and I am in shadow again.” (Whited out.)
“A book which is left on a shelf is a dead thing but it is also a chrysalis, an inanimate object packed with the potential to burst into new life.” (2)
“The internet can have a pernicious influence on reading because it is full of book-related gossip and chatter on which it is fatally easy to waste time that should be spent actually paying close, careful attention to the books themselves, whether writing them or reading them.” (3)
“I am not certain if more people read now than they did in the 1940s and 1950s, but I am certain they go to the library less often. The old private ones no longer exist of course, and public libraries have changed, in many cases for the worse. There are fewer new books to borrow, old ones have been de-commissioned (that is, thrown out), computers have arrived, as have reading glasses for sale and DVDs for rent.” (23)
“From time to time, lists pop up on the pages of newspapers. One hundred books nobody has ever read. Fifty books nobody ever finished reading. Ten books you can safely ignore. Well, they have to fill the pages. The trouble with so many of these lists is that they are a peg on which to hang a sneer, besides always, always listing the same books.” (64)
“It is the time [immediately after death] – when novels sink and are forgotten as the reading world moves on, before someone plunges an arm into the depths and pulls up first one then another – and so begins the slow process of reassessment.” (114)
“[Elizabeth Bowen] knows that detail can either be pointless, tiresome padding which contracts the reader’s own imagination, or that it can be made to count, in the way it can somehow echo a sentence, illuminate a moment of choice, stand for a very particular emotional situation.” (140)
“Can books learn from one another? Can they change as a result of sitting on a shelf beside another for years? If not, might they regret being forever trapped, as it were, within their own content, doomed never to grow old, never to return to a state before they were created? We find it hard to imagine a world which does not contain us, or at least does not contain knowledge and awareness of ourselves even if it does not know our physical presence.” (201)
“What a strange person I must be. But if the books I have read helped to form me, then probably nobody else who ever lives has read exactly the same books, all the same books and only the same books, as me. So just as my genes and the soul within me make me uniquely me, so I am the unique some of the books I have read. I am my literary DNA.” (202)