Howards End Is On the Landing: a Year of Reading from Home

Susan Hill's title is only half helpful - it gives a fair impression of what the book isn't, but not quite what it is. As a memoir of the reading life, Howards End Is On the Landing is not ruminative, like Geoffrey O'Brien's The Browser's Ecstasy, or summative, like Clive James's Cultural Amnesia. Rather, it is personal, practical and anecdotal, as the title suggests, though with a longer time span and more varied settings than the title promises - not a year of reading from home, but a lifetime of reading, writing, meeting, publishing and broadcasting, in numerous places.

This is not entirely a case of false advertising. The book's diverse chapters - there is material on pop-up books and W G Sebald - spring from Hill's shelf-browsing in the place she now calls home - a book-crammed farmhouse where she lives with her husband, Stanley Wells, identified here, with mock-grandiosity and ironic detachment, as "the Shakespeare professor". And stirring in the background of this occasionally delightful book is a rather uninteresting "crystallising" experiment, wherein Hill resolved to read only books that she already owned.

Thankfully, Hill is too excitable for this new diet to receive much sustained attention. She is happier telling us about books she has read in past years, and about encounters and near encounters with Iris Murdoch, Arnold Wesker, T S Eliot, Ian Fleming and her hero Benjamin Britten; the reader - or at least, this reader - is happier to be told about these things than about her arbitrary decision to choose Our Mutual Friend over Bleak House in her final 40 books. (The list itself is the most valuable thing here, an idiosyncratic commingling of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Only Trollope and Wodehouse receive two spots.)

As a thinker, Hill is shaggy - she is rigorously unphilosophical and assiduously unsystematic. The most appealing manifestation of this relaxed temperament is her disdain for the idea of reading obligations: "I do not read much poetry now, and rarely anything new. I know I should. Should. Ought. But I don't and that's that." But relaxation, if unchecked, is mere laxity, and the book suffers from its lack of ambition and shows no sign of having been proofread.

In her dealings with books and writers, Hill offers little in the way of critical illumination - that is, she offers a fair amount of critical comment, but rarely is it illuminating. As a result, when she expresses a quirky point of view - "I am bored by Jane Austen" - it remains a quirky point of view.

The arguments offered in support of such topsy-turvy judgements are often thin. It does not tell us much to refer to the "porcelain veneer" of Austen's work, especially if we do not agree with the description.

The book is stronger when Hill is providing off-trail recommendations. Without falling into ahistorical aestheticism (a thing of beauty is a joy for ever, and so on), she likes to revisit works that were once loved but have fallen out of favour or print. The book is best read as a discursive reading list. John Wain's novel The Smaller Sky is one of a dozen books that I had never heard of and am now eager to read. Wain aside, the writers whom Hill believes to be suffering unjust neglect are women, with Elizabeth Jane Howard and Iris Murdoch being notable beneficiaries of her feisty praise.

The book's controlling metaphor, though Hill nowhere acknowledges it, is of reading as eating. We are told that she would give up buying books just as people give up chocolate for Lent; two pages later, with nothing to establish the connection, Hill explains that she excuses her book-buying "on the vague grounds" that a paperback is better for you than a bar of cho­colate. Elsewhere, she praises slow reading as against gobbling up, remembers the post-natal practice of "reading-while-feeding", and disparages thrillers and comic novels as "ice-cream reading". Hill has a voracious and varied appetite and her taste, with a few exceptions, is impeccable.

But her personal preferences are finally beside the point - her book is a celebration of reading tout court. A celebration, not a defence. Though Hill wonders at one point when educated men ceased to be as educated as Lord David Cecil, this is not a book about literature under siege or the disappearance of memorisation, about slipping standards or falling literacy rates. (It is not a rant, despite Hill's occasional tetchiness.) She is writing about reading not out of annoyance with its detractors, but out of adoration for its own positive virtues.

It is particularly rare and refreshing to find a book that treats reading as a first-hand activity, in defiance of the old distinction between life and literature. Time spent in the company of The Blue Flower or To The Lighthouse constitutes experience, like sex or bungee-jumping. Hill recognises that reading has a centrality in people's lives; indeed, for those of us without political ambition or practical ability, it is more or less the only thing worth doing.

Howards End Is On the Landing: a Year of Reading from Home
Susan Hill
Profile Books, 236pp, £12.99

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, New York / London