Howard’s End Is On The Landing

While I am on my sabbatical from libraries, I find that I have to put a little more effort into finding things to read. When you are surrounded by books all day long, especially books that are constantly being borrowed, returned, packed up to be sent off to another branch, or unpacked, or displayed, it is so, so, easy to always have a list as long as your arm that you want to read.

I have my Persephone Project to work on (I have just re-ordered the very first title in the series to read – I started it last time, and it was reserved by another reader, so I had to return it) but I like to have at least one book on the go, and another lined up. I can of course still visit the library, and I often do, but in all the years I worked in libraries, I have rarely browsed as a reader normally would, and I am not very good at it.

Part of the problem is that it is hard to browse in a library you have worked in. You are slightly too familiar with the stock, and never lose the urge to tidy up a display, or reshelve something that is in the wrong place. So on Saturday, we took a little drive to the newly opened library in Springfield. It does feel good to work for an authority that is opening libraries, rather than shutting them, and this one is being run with the assitance of volunteers. It isn’t a large library, but has the feeling of space and airiness in it which is lovely. And most heavenly of all, all the books are new. I have often thought that libraries are like the most wonderful bookshops where you don’t have to pay, but never has this felt more real than browsing in that library (it is Springfield Library, should you like to visit it yourself). Being smaller, I wasn’t quite as overwhlemed with the choice available as I sometimes am at larger branches. I came away with several craft books, a novel or two, and the feeling of utter luxury and abundnace.

Part of my desire to visit the library came from having driven past it the night before, on my way to book club. I had seen the architects plans when it was in the earliest stages of planning, and I was delighted by how much the library looked like the plans. Book club was at the home of the lovely Agnes, and when she pressed into my hands a brand new Kirstie Allsopp craft book that she had got from Springfield Library only that day, I was resolved that I needed to visit!

I wish I could take you to Agnes’ home. It is a real reflection of her, and you leave feeling…better. Such is the same as spending time with Agnes. Always, you feel better. Her home is simple but lovely, filled with her paintings, and the conservatory opens into a garden filled with lush blooms. I am sure a lot of work goes into it, but she makes everything seem effortless. We drank tea from Denby teacups, and ate homemade fruit cake, and discussed Howard’s End Is On The Landing by Susan Hill. Have you read it? If you haven’t, rush out to your library, and borrow it now. I am willing to wager that you will love it enough to want to buy it.

I think it is fair to say at the start, that as much as I love Susan Hill, and as much as I love this book, if she wasn’t Susan Hill, I could imagine this being a blog project rather than a book. But I am so glad that it is a book! Whilst looking for her copy of Howard’s End, Susan Hill realised that she has many books that she either hand’t read at all, or wanted to re-read, and so resolved to spend a year ‘reading from home’ – that is, only reading what she already owned.

If this book were only about that, it would be lovely in itself, but it is more than that. She muses on the fonts that are used in books, how we arrange and organize our books, why we don’t read some books, ponders on poetry, talks about travelogues, discusses diaries…she evokes the atmosphere of the London Library so well that I am determined to buy myself a subscription just as soon as I can afford one, and relates all manner of meetings with writers such as T.S. Eliot and Edith Sitwell.

I know it is said you should never judge a book by its cover (although publishers know that we do, and spend a great deal of money on this!) but the cover of this book appealed to me enoromously – it shows the spines of some old bound books, close up – one with the title of the book itself, and the author’s name, and the other with the subtitle. It reminded me of a notebook that my Mum bought for me several years ago, when I got the job at my little library on the hill. It is a hardcover notebook, only a bit smaller than Howard’s End Is On The Landing, and the cover is the spines of old books, lined up on a bookshelf. I had resisted writing in it until now, because I knew that it was meant for something special, and that I needed to wait and find out what that was. Well, this is it. I using it as I read Howards End Is On The Landing to make notes of the books and authors that she recommends that I want to read for myself. And when I read my next book, I will do the same. I so often come across a lovely phrase that I want to pin down on the page to savour, or a word to look up, or else any number of other things to look up. A piece of music or poetry mentioned, or a map of just where a particular place is, or so many other things. From now on, they will all go down in here….a kind of reading journal, but more.

When I read the following passage, it resounded deeply in me. It is that feeling of reading someone elses words, and seeing how eloquently they have captured something that you yourself feel, but either didn’t know it until that moment, or could never have dreamed of articulating so well:

Books help to form us. If you cut me open, you will find volume after volume, page after page, the contents of every one I have ever read, somehow transmuted and transformed into me. Alice in Wonderland. the Magic Faraway Tree. The Hound of the Baskervilles. The Book of Job. Bleak House. Wuthering Heights. The Complete Poems of W H Auden. The Tale of Mr Tod. Howard”s End. What a strange person I must be. 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.”

As well as giving me plenty of ideas for what to read next, it has made me realise that my own bookshelves need some attention. It has been in the back of my mind for some time now to design my own book plate, and take off all the books, one by one, decide if they still need to live with me, or be set free to find a new home. To rearrange them, and hopefully discover some treasures I had forgotten I have…to find old friends, and fall in love with my books once more.

This is a comforting, cosy read. It feels almost like having free reign to rummage through someone’s bookshelves to get to know them better. I now have the first in her detective series on order from the library, and a list of other books to order. This is definitley the kind of book to settle down with, notepad and pen next to you, and a full pot of tea to hand, and with an air of happy expectation, open the cover, and begin. How could you resist a book which starts:

The journey began one early autumn afternoon, in the old farmhouse where i live, surrounded by the genly rising hills and graceful trees, the ploughed and planted fields, the hedgerows and flower borders and orchards and old stone walls, the deer and birds and hedgehogs and rabbits, the foxes and badgers and moths and bees of Gloucestershire. I climbed two flights of elm-wood staris to the top landing in search of a book, and found myself embarked on a year of travelling through the books of a lifetime….


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