It began like this. I went to the shelves on the landing to look for a book I knew was there. It was not. But plenty of others were, and among them I noticed a dozen I realized I had never read.
I pursued this elusive book through several rooms and did not find it in any of them, but each time I did find at least a dozen, perhaps two dozen, perhaps two hundred that I had never read. And then I picked out a book I had read but had forgotten I owned. And another and another. After that came the books I had read, knew I owned and realized that I wanted to read again.
I found the book I was looking for in the end, but by then it had become far more than a book. It marked the start of a journey through my own library.
Some people give up drink for January or chocolate for Lent; others decide to live for a year on just a pound a day or without buying any new clothes. Their reasons may be financial (to save money), physical (to lose weight), or spiritual (to become more holy). I decided to spend a year reading only books already on my shelves …
The journey through my own books involved giving up buying new ones, and that will seem a perverse act for someone who is both an author and a publisher. But this was a personal journey, not a mission. I felt the need to get to know my own books again, but I am not about to persuade other people to abandon the purchase of new ones.
I wanted to repossess my books, to explore what I had accumulated over a lifetime of reading, and to map this house of many volumes. There are enough here to divert, instruct, entertain, amaze, amuse, edify, improve, enrich me for far longer than a year and every one of them deserves to be taken down and dusted. opened and read. A book which is left on the shelf is a dead thing but it is also a chrysalis, an inanimate object packed with the potential to burst into new life. Wandering through the house that day looking for one elusive book, my eyes were opened to how much of that life was stored here, neglected or ignored.
The start of my journey also coincided with my decision to curtail my use of the internet, which can have an insidious, corrosive effect. Too much internet usage fragments the brain and dissipates concentration so that after a while, one’s ability to spend long, focused hours immersed in a single subject becomes blunted. Information comes pre-digested in small pieces, one grazes on endless ready-meals and snacks of the mind, and the result is mental malnutrition.
The internet can also have a pernicious influence on reading because it is full of book-related gossip and chatter on which it is fatally easy to waste time that should be spent actually paying close, careful attention to the books themselves, whether writing them or reading them.
So begins Howard’s End is on the Landing (Profile Books, 2009), by noted British author, Susan Hill. The book is Hill’s journal of spending a year rediscovering books in her large collection while looking for one elusive title she wanted to find – books that she had ignored, neglected or deem worthy of re-reading. Howards End is a delightful, if highly personal romp through the various book genres represented in Hill’s collection, which includes children’s books, humor, diaries, anthologies, spiritual books, and Biblical commentaries. The last chapter climaxes with forty books which she regards as most worthy of reading. Of course, who should read what is always a personal choice, so the book should be read as one woman’s idiosyncratic preferences. Nonetheless, it is an amusing read, and one that may well re-ignite in us a love for reading, which done tastefully, is always enriching habit. About that, I believe there is no quarrel.