That isn’t quite a picture of our house, though it is a bit of a losing battle against books piled in every room (and often dangerously on the stairs too …). They are tolerably organized in my study, not because I’m naturally tidy but because I know the aggravation involved if I can’t lay my hands on a work book that I know I have somewhere. But elsewhere things are rather more haphazard. Why is Lichtenberg next to Wolf Hall, or the great Courtesans and Fishcakes snuggled up to a mildly embarrassed Alan Bennett? But such happenstance makes for good browsing when you are looking for the book, the one that fits the mood and the time of day and the weather outside and all those other mysterious factors that determine what is right for the occasion. I know there are people who catalogue their books and know exactly who has borrowed which. But it’s not like that here.
Nor for Susan Hill, as she recounts in her engaging Howard’s End is on the Landing which I’ve just finished. If you too have accumulated more books than you know what to do with and have eclectic reading habits, you’ll love her book, nodding in agreement here (as she explains why she keeps books she knows she won’t read again), and starting with surprise there (she doesn’t ‘get’ Jane Austen? Twelfth Night doesn’t make her Shakespeare shortlist??). Reading her book is like a one-sided conversation with a ridiculously well-read, gently opinionated, meandering friend.
And as you’d expect from a fine writer, Susan Hill is very keen on the virtues of slow reading. “Fast reading of a great novel … will not allow the book to burrow down into our memory and become part of ourselves, the accumulation of knowledge and wisdom and vicarious experience which helps to form us as complete human beings. It will not develop our awareness or add to the sum of our knowledge and intelligence.” Which, pace the po-mo loonies, is why serious reading matters.