Thursday, August 14, 2014

Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill

A week ago on Facebook, I discussed Helene Hanff's wonderful book of letters, 84, Charing Cross Road, and a friend recommended another book. She said I definitely needed to read Susan Hill's Howards End is on the Landing. Hill's tastes are a little more literary than mine, but there's a shared passion for books. Since Hill lives in England, some of the titles were British, so I wasn't familiar with them, or, in some cases, even the authors. However, it's a wonderful book for discovery.

Hill was looking for a book, one that she knew was on the landing of her house. It wasn't there, but it led her to a year's adventure. She decided to spend a year reading only the books that were in the house, with the exception of academic books she would borrow from libraries, and books she received for review. It led to a year of serendipitous reading.

The chapters seem to wander through Hill's life as she wanders through her house and her books. Here's Hill as a child in the library. Did you know in a time when infectious and contagious diseases were more common, books in the children's library were fumigated and marked fumigated? Here she is on the doorstep with T.S. Eliot, or at a party with Ian Fleming. Her chapters cover everything from children's books to women's novels, poetry, pop-up books, Charles Dickens, favorite authors, Virginia Woolf, things found in her books, picture books, and diaries. She discusses classics and the authors who wrote them, the authors she knew, authors and books that have been forgotten. It's a well-rounded book covering an eclectic selection. It's obvious Hill and her husband are scholars with books covering a myriad of subjects. And, then there's that question to make every reader think. You can only have forty books for the rest of your life. What forty will you keep from your own collection?

I'm glad a friend suggested Howards End is on the Landing. Hill shares her passion for books, the actual physical paper book as well as the contents and the authors. It's a joy to read about her book collection and her life of books. And, she sums every joyful reader up with one paragraph. "Books help to form us. If you cut me open, will you find volume after volume, page after page, the contents of every one I have ever read, somehow transmuted and transformed into me?...But if the books I have read have helped to form me, then probably nobody else who ever lived 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 sum of the books I have read. I am my literary DNA."

Susan Hill's Howards End is on the Landing is her fascinating exploration of her literary DNA.

Susan Hill's website is

Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill. Profile Books. 2009. ISBN 9781846682667 (paperback), 236p.

FTC Full Disclosure - Library book


Liz said...

Sounds great. Thanks.

Lesa said...

My pleasure, Liz. Just passing on what a friend passed to me!

Bonnie K. said...

This looks like something I'd want to read. I loved Helene Hanff's 84, Charing Cross Road. I loved the movie, too.

Lesa said...

I hope you can pick it up, Bonnie. But, 84, Charing Cross Road still holds a special place in my heart.

Rosemary said...

Hi Lesa,

Only just seen this as so busy with the Edinburgh Book Festival, etc. I read Susan Hill's book - also on a recommendation - but I didn't find it nearly as good as I'd hoped. I felt it was endless name-dropping (when I met X, when I had dinner with Y) and academic point-scoring. Nevertheless, I'm glad you enjoyed it! I've read other books of hers and liked them.

Best wishes, Rosemary x

Lesa said...

So good to hear from you, Rosemary! Well, it wasn't 84, Charing Cross Road. I actually preferred the minor chapters - children''s books,, things found in books. And a couple chapters totally escaped me. But I still enjoyed it.

Rosemary said...

Oh I love 84 Charing Cross Road! And the sequel - was it The Duchess of somewhere? Helene Hanff actually meets Joyce Grenfell in it!

At the Book Festival this week I saw and actually spoke to Irma Kurtz - I don't know if she's as well known in the US as she is here, she is American but has lived in London for 40+ years, and been the agony aunt for Cosmopolitan for all that time. I feel my generation grew up with her - Cosmo is not what it was, and I haven't read it for years, but she is still the most wonderful woman, so funny, self-deprecating and so perceptive about life. Unlike many agony aunts, she doesn't claim to have all the answers. I enjoyed her session so much.

And I saw Judith Kerr too - again I don't know if you'll have heard of her, but she's v famous here for The Tiger Who Came To Tea, the Mog books and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. She's 91 and still as sharp as a knife.

And this evening Madeleine and I have just been to see YA author Patrick Ness, who gave the Siobhan Dowd Trust Memorial Lecture - he was fantastic.

Not all the sessions I've attended were so good, but it's been a fun time on the whole - another week and a bit to go before everyone goes away and Edinburgh residents collapse in a heap...:-)

Anonymous said...

I’m a big Helene Hanff fan too. I think the book Rosemary refers to is The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street. It’s well worth the read, as is Q’s Legacy, which is about how Helene Hanff educated herself based on a book of lectures by a Cambridge professor.

Lesa said...

I did read The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, so thanks, Liz, for filling both of us in! I didn't read Q's Legacy, though.

And, Rosemary! It sounds as if you're having a wonderful time. Sessions are sometimes good and sometimes bad, I understand. I wouldn't have recognized Judith Kerr's name until you said When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. I'm afraid I don't know the other names, though. It doesn't matter, though, does it? Isn't it wonderful to hear authors?