I love books about books. I mean, I really fucking love them. Book-books are my chosen topic of non-fiction writing, and there just aren’t enough of them. I go on Amazon specifically to look at Listmania lists titled ‘books about books’. My favourites are Anne Fadiman’s Ex-Libris and Alberto Manguel’s A Reading Diary, and I’ve read them so many times that the words are losing their meaning. I’ve been a nerd for books since I was old enough to chew their pages, so what could possibly be better than a book about books? It’s like a cake with another, even more delicious, cake inside.
Websites like The Millions, The Rumpus and Open Letters Monthly’s Like Fire section go a little way to sating my desire for book-chat, but I’m sure you can understand my joy when one of my favourite ghost-story writers, Susan Hill, published her own book about books: Howards End Is On The Landing.
The book was sparked, apparently, when Hill was searching for a book and was suddenly struck by the thought that she had hundreds — thousands — of books that she had never read, or wanted to reread, or didn’t even know she owned. She decided that for the following year she would not buy any new books: instead she would read only books she already owned. This led to a collection of short essays on such things as memorising poetry, travel books, starting a small press, diarists, e-books, the joys of reading slowly, and which books should and should not be placed beside one another on the shelf.
First, the imperfections. Hill is a religious woman, and while I have nothing at all against religion or those who choose to follow it, I’m not really interested in reading about it. Hill devotes at least two of her essays to the subject of religion, and often segues into spirituality during thoughts on an entirely different topic, so the ‘Christian bits’ are hard to avoid. I’m sure Hill did not intend to be evangelical, but I don’t like to be preached at. Along similar lines is Hill’s unfortunate habit of name-dropping. I understand that Susan Hill has been a professional writer for fifty years, and produces both well-respected and enjoyable fiction; I understand also that she must have met an awful lot of literary types in those fifty years. But do we really need to know about her postcard from Dirk Bogarde?
My only other criticism is structure. There are two schools of thought on the structure of essays: the school-essay-style structure in which the essayist sticks to the topic at hand and debates their point in succinct, easy-to-follow chunks with useful things like paragraph headings; and the more fluid, personal, self-reflective style, in which the essayist may flit between topics so that the essay often begins and ends on completely different subject. This second one is more about the essayist exploring a subject than having a strong opinion to begin with, and I am a fan of this structure. But often Hill’s essays start off on a promising topic, such as her thoughts on travel writing, only to end up in personal reminiscences about her friendships with Bruce Chatwin and Colin Thubron. I wish Hill had kept these stories for her autobiography, and focused on books instead.
Howards End Is On The Landing is not a perfect book, but I still love it. I love that Hill loves books so much: more than I do, even. She has structured her life to revolve completely around books, and I enjoy inhabiting that world with her. I like that she always has loving and clear-eyed things to say about books — even books that I don’t like get a new patina of interest after I’ve spent some time in Hill’s world.
As in her novels, Hill’s descriptions are intensely evocative. In ‘Saturday Mornings and Wednesday Afternoons’ Hill reminisces about the books her mother borrowed from the local library:
[The books] always smelled — they smelled of the women who borrowed them, of camphor and mothballs, boiled wool and cooking and cigarette smoke and some other unidentifiable but unmistakeable fusty, musty smell which was released like a faint gas when the cover was opened.
One of my favourite essays, ‘A Little List’, describes Hill’s feelings about the unread books that have lurked on her shelves for years: “I think I know a lot about Don Quixote. I do know a lot about Don Quixote. I have just never read it. I doubt if I ever will.” I found this essay perversely reassuring, because I was starting to think that Hill had actually read every book in the world ever. She has certainly read more than I have, so I did get a tiny sense of success that she has not read Antoine de Saint-Exupary’s A Little Prince, and I have.
‘Bad Bed-Fellows’ begins as a consideration of which books should and should not be placed next to one another on the shelf (“A child’s nursery rhyme book does not have the language in which to speak to a Latin dictionary”), but drifts into a beautifully-written confession of Hill’s fear of a life centred on books. It’s such an incredible, moving, paranoid, and sensual essay that I wish I could type the whole thing out for you to read:
The last streaks of light have gone from the sky and I am on the upstairs landing in the gloaming. Do the books believe I am no longer there because they do not see me? Can they hear the sound of my breathing? I can still stretch out a hand and grasp one– Once it is dark and they settle back, do they sleep? Do they move closer together and rearrange their covers?
By the end Hill has relented, realising that books are a vital part of her life:
All through the house, the books are murmuring, turning over in sleep like pebbles on the shoreline as the tide recedes. But when I reach the stone-flagged hall and stand for a moment listening, everything falls silent. I hear the comforting, inhabited, friendly silence of a house full of books.
It’s one of my favourite ever collection of sentences, and it’s well worth reading the book just for that one heart-shifting essay.
Howards End Is On The Landing sits on my shelf next to Anne Fadiman and Alberto Manguel, and I know that it will only be a matter of weeks before I pull it down to read again.
 Having also read and adored At Large And At Small: Familiar Essays, I think I might be a little bit in love with Ms. Fadiman.
 Please note that I rarely do this now.
 Though to be fair, she was born in 1942 and so has had over forty more reading years than I have.