This book is subtitled “A Year of Reading” and that really gives away most of the format of this book. Susan Hill has combined twelve chapters named for each month of the year of considered arguments about books, spontaneous nature notes, and small revelations about her life and family members. Following on from her “Howards End is on the Landing”, this novelist looks at the world of her books and those that she has read and loved. I am quite attached to her first book of this type, though it did tend to drop into ‘authors I have known’ type reminisces rather than a commentary on books. This is an element here, as she reaches back into her memory to capture those she has known who were famous, but that is not the main thrust of this book. The main purpose of this book is to say what she feels about the books she has written, the books she owns and disposes of, and the setting and spirit of her current home.
Anyone with more than a passing interest in books today and over the last six decades or so will find this an argument for their interest; Hill writes of writers and books she has loved, writing and publishing her books, books that she has around her and those she loves. At the back of the book is a list of all those she refers to, not indexed but just the full reference to books she mentions, most favourably, some less so. She does discuss authors, and I have read reviews of this book which says that she dismisses some unfairly; indeed she writes off much of Second World War era fiction apart from Olivia Manning in sweeping terms. This style of criticism can provoke furious reactions but it is important to remember that this is a very personal book, in which she sets out her views. In a book group or other setting reaction would be possible and helpful; if this book had appeared as a blog the reader could comment. Overall I enjoy reading one person’s view of books, writing and the market so I accept her views, though they would not be my own. She writes of book prizes that she has known and judged, and their effect on writers. She is not too complimentary about the Creative Writing courses which are offered throughout the UK, but also admits that her own writing career was made possible and easier by mentors and others who supported her own early efforts.
This book is also full of notes on the natural world she experiences around her throughout the year, especially the comings and goings of birds. I am no expert in these matters, but I can appreciate her sense of the seasons, of light and temperature which help dictate her reading choices and settings. This is a book of experience, of intelligent assessment of the books and people that have shaped so much of a life. For all those who love books, for those who try to write them or those of us who just love to read and hoard them, this is a fascinating read of rich thinking about reading in a life.
Of course a certain gift giving festival approaches, and this would be an excellent present for any book lover. Though be aware, some of us couldn’t /can’t wait that long, and have already bought a copy….