From various posts around book blogland I knew that Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing got mixed reviews. But I find books about books nearly irresistible so I bought a copy anyway and determined to like it. Determination, however, wasn’t enough.
The book is about Hill’s decision to read only books she owns for a year. I figured she’d be reading all those books on her shelves she hasn’t read. Nope. The book turns out to be a tour through her bookshelves of all the books she has already read and liked. It’s sort of a trip down memory lane. And it was never clear to me whether she was actually rereading the books or only dipping into them. That shouldn’t matter, after all, Michael Dirda has a couple of books that are nothing but essays about his favorite books and authors. But Susan Hill is not Michael Dirda. Dirda writes so passionately and enthusiastically and often charmingly about books that when I meandered my way through his Classics for Pleasure last year I found myself wanting to read nearly every book he talked about. Susan Hill, not so much.
Clearly Hill loves books and reading but she has a certain distance when she writes about them. I got the feeling that she didn’t care whether or not I as a reader was turned on to a particular book or author she loves. I’m not sure if she assumes I like what she likes, know about the books or authors she likes and thus provide the emotional part of the equation myself, or, if she didn’t care about me at all because the book is really all about her. She does have a rather snobby tone now and then. She hates the idea of e-readers, she doesn’t like Jane Austen at all, and she name drops shamelessly. She mentions at the beginning of the book that she’d be name dropping and I thought it would be no big deal because she’d provide some kind of insight or interesting piece of inside information but no, all she really does is name drop and it gets old and annoying fast.
Nearly every chapter had something in it that would rub me the wrong way. Like her claimed inability to read any book that doesn’t use a serif font. Really? Or, when she in one chapter declares that it is always the reader’s fault for not getting along with a book (unless it is a Barbara Cartland novel) but then a few chapters later says that if a book is left undread, the fault lies ultimately with the author. She also doesn’t like Canadian or Australian literature because she just doesn’t understand Australia and she thinks all Alice Munro stories all sound the same.
The whole book wasn’t bad. If it were I would not have kept reading. Every now and then she’d say something to make me think that maybe things were turning around and I could finally fall in love with the book. I never did fall in love but she dangled the carrot and kept me reading anyway. Now I understand why there were so many mixed reviews of the book. Next time that happens with a book about books maybe I will find the will to resist.