Saturday, October 17, 2009

Howards End is in the Landing

I have purposely tried to take my time on this book rather than swallow it whole because there just feels like such a lot of things to take in. I also know a lot of people are reading it or anticipating reading it and so I want to have my thoughts in order before holding forth. I had intended to get up early and finish it this morning. (I’m practicing getting up early for new job, the book was the carrot to sweeten the stick of not being a morning person – and it will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me to discover that I woke up, thought about it, and then went straight back to sleep).

I’ve seen 'Howards End is on the Landing' described as blog like, and I understand that, although the more I read of it the more it feels like a series of essays or lectures, maybe even a correspondence. I feel like I know things about Susan Hill now, but not that I know her – which is how I like it. She is proving to be an entertaining thought provoking presence in my home, but I like being able to close the book and put her away before her presence becomes to formidable.

The beauty of the format is that whilst each chapter leads towards a final point – a list of 40 books Hill wouldn’t be without, each one stands alone too and there are a number of them I will be revisiting time and again – either because I find them so in tune with how I think, or so out of tune. ‘Writing in Books’ is one of those chapters – and actually it gets me both ways.

Like Susan Hill I used to write my name in my books until I was about fourteen and then stopped, I have never possessed Bookplates. The Bookplate issue is one of a handful of moments when I feel like I’m really meeting the author – she doesn’t like them:

“Happily, I can go among all our books without finding a single volume bearing a bookplate. Bookplates are for posers, even when beautifully designed by real artists and engravers, though most people claim they are only there to identify the owner in case of loss. I don’t believe that. Do people put ID plates inside their handbags and wallets, or etch them on the family silver and China? Of course they don’t...”

But they do Susan they do. I think of bookplates as a particularly Victorian thing, all part of a passion for embellishment. The family silver isn’t really family silver without some sort of monogram or crest – it’s just silver. Any Victorian gentleman with pretensions to gentility would have furnished himself with a library, all his books neatly plated; I grew up with my great great uncles. If there were ever any valuable books they were gone before I was aware of them, what I remember are bound volumes of Punch, and rows of Dickens and Wilkie Collins, and some racy looking stuff in French and white leather. I read some of the Collins, cheap editions with uncut pages so I knew I was the first person to open them with any serious intent. They’re all gone now but I hope I stumble across one again sometime in a second hand shop, it occurs to me as well that my name scribbled across a page would be a silent (but hopefully powerful) reproach to any book borrower lax about returning things.

I don’t write in my books, or at least never about the text, not since being mortified by rereading my youthful ‘insights’ into T S Eliot. I still have my A level English books and I know they’re heavily annotated but I can’t bear to open them again. Not yet anyway. I like coming across others annotations though, especially when they’re far more insightful then me, I’m happy to underline things and dog ear corners, and it fascinates me to listen to what other readers do with their books and see how they fit into their lives, all of which is why ‘Howards End is on the Landing’ is turning into such a perfect peach of a book for me.


  1. I can't wait for my copy to arrive!

  2. I too am waiting for my copy to arrive and your post is not helping me be patient. I have chimed in somehwere else on the blogosphere about the whole bookplate issue so I am afraid to repeat myself. I typically do not put my name in books. I guess I am thinking about some future value of the book that I will probably never realize because I will be dead before the books are ever sold. On the other hand, I actually like coming across names, dates, and locations in old books that acquire. I love the fact that my May Sarton paperbacks were all owned by the same person. I love finding out that my copy of Ship of Fools that I bought in Mexico City was owned by a woman in Oregon. Yet I don't write in my books. Hmm. Perhaps it is because I don't like my handwriting. I would love a nicely designed personalized bookplate.

    A few years ago we stayed at a house in Tuscany that we had stayed at previously. That house had a take one, leave one kind of library of paperbacks in many different languages. When I perused the shelves to see what was there I saw one by Willa Cather and thought "Ooh, Cather". So I pick up the book only to find my own name and the date of our previous stay at the house written in the book. I knew that I had read that Cather book, but I didn't remember that I was the one who added it to that Tuscan library. I guess I was also a little surprised that I had written my name the date in it. I guess I wanted other readers to know who had been there before them.

  3. I'm still waiting for my copy - and I shall be cursing the Post Office if it doesn't get here before the strike. I'm a non-marker of books, though I do like book plates. And I love finding names and dates written by previous owners in old books. I have a number of 1940s Penguins from a local shop with the name Jim Hodge in them. I'd love to know who he was.

  4. Another lovely review, Hayley, which I really enjoyed. This book really is *everywhere* at the moment, isn't it? A real gem.