So many books, so little time. (Howards End is on the Landing)

I’ve just finished reading Susan Hill’s – “Howards End is on the Landing”. Any readers who have come across the writings of Susan Hill probably best know her for her novels – of which there are many. I haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading her fiction, but if she writes her stories in the same enthralling manner in which she wrote this book, I am guessing that she will be a delight to read. I will certainly take a book or two of hers out from the local library to see for myself.

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Howards End is on the Landing is a wonderful book that takes us on a search for E.M. Forster’s book, Howards End, among Susan Hills vast and haphazard collection of books – in many rooms, on many bookshelves and in many piles, in corners or on windowsills, or even in stacks on the stairs. The search leads her to discover many books that she has bought or otherwise acquired over the years and never read. As she continues her search for Howards End, she puts a number of these freshly re-discovered books into a “to read” pile….to be joined by other previously read books that she has a burning desire to read again. She decides to compile a list of 40 books from her own shelves to be set aside to read over the next twelve months. As she shares her collection with us we are given the benefit of Susan’s experience – educated as to which books are worth reading, have stood the test of time, are regarded as either “true” classics….or simply also-rans. And as she educates us she also entertains us – regaling us with personal stories about the books, their stories and about authors she admires, has met and/or worked with along the way. And in some instances how her opinion of some writers, she met, changed over the years. Roald Dahl being a prime example. (Read the book to find out what changed her mind about the great Mr Dahl).

Howards End is on the Landing has set me thinking about a number of book related issues such as, compared with Susan Hill, how little I have read of books that are considered to be “the classics”, how many books there are in existence, and how impossible it is to read them all. It also makes me realise that perhaps I shouldn’t waste what time I have left on this earth by reading what she regards as “pulp fiction” …. and also how many books I have collected or amassed over the years, bought on a whim and gathering dust on a shelf unread and, for now, unloved. BUT how does each person know if a book is worth reading or not, simply by reading the notes on the books cover? Even by looking on line and checking the likes of Goodread’s reviews….they are, after all, just other peoples opinions…their tastes may not be mine….the only way to find out for sure is to read each book.

As Susan Hill writes of her journey through her book collection – “What follows is a description of that journey, which has also and inevitably led to my thinking, remembering, ordering, assessing, my entire book-reading life.” And what a full and interesting book reading life that has been. She also mentions the benefits of “Slow Reading” – saying that some books you can rip through as fast as possible, enjoy the thrill of the ride, absorb a simple story-line and then put the book down never to have the urge to read it ever again….comparable to grabbing a quick burger for a snack (fast food – satisfying the immediate urge, but not a long lasting satisfaction), where as other books should be Slow Reading stories – enjoyed in well chewed mouthfuls….savoured over a long period and digested gradually over time. She will read two or three chapters of, for example, Little Dorrit, or To the Lighthouse, or Midnight’s Children – and then go back and slowly chew over each sentence….see how each paragraph has been put together….mull over how each character is developed….what they say, how they say it….she enjoys examining the complexity of language and style. Slow reading, just like slow food is to be enjoyed and absorbed gradually – not gulped down.

In the final chapter of the book she mentions that we owe it to books to bring them to life by reading them rather than letting them sit like decorations on our shelves, simply looking pretty. “…for a book which is closed and unread is not alive, it is only packed, like a foetus, with potential.”

With this in mind I am going to take a good look at the books I have amassed/collected over the years, which are currently languishing on bookshelves in the dining room, bookshelves in the spare bedroom – which doubles as my office – piled in dark corners, in boxes under beds, in long forgotten cupboards, in boxes and trunks in storage in the garage. Some no doubt never have been read, others will be old favourites which have been taken down from the shelves and read several times….others have merely been dipped into…nibbled at in snack sized bites when time allows. I owe them all another chance, so I’ll do what Susan did and take a journey across the shelves, back in time, to re-discover and reclaim the books I once held dear…and come up with a “to read” list of my own.

I’ll let you know in a future post how I get along and what I find of interest. Meantime enjoy your reading and give life to a forgotten book if you can.

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You never know what you’ll find…

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Second hand shops (not second hand Book Shops) can be a treasure trove of old books. Second hand Book Store owners tend to know their stuff and price their books accordingly, where as general second hand shop keepers are not always as well versed in the value of old books that pass through their hands.

I have amassed books, as opposed to “collected” books in the past. I select books that I like the look of the cover or the review or subject matter or author and I tend to rarely throw any of them away…..even the bad ones.

That was until I read a book called “A Pound of Paper” – (subtitled Confessions of a Book Addict) by Australian author John Baxter. It chronicles his book entwined life. How he became a writer – in his teens…as a protest to poorly written Sci-Fi stories in a magazine – and how, via working in the book trade he became a collector of books…..initially by Graham Greene. His collection is now a vast library of first editions and author signed books – probably worth thousands of dollars.

His work took him from Australia to the UK and the USA, but he now lives with his French wife, in Paris, on Rue de l’Odeon – in the same building once occupied by Sylvia Beach – owner of the original Shakespeare & Company book store. The building is steeped in literary history, having been visited by Gloria Steine, Ernest Hemingway and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald to name but a few of the famous literary figures to have graced its halls.

John has written biographies about famous movie stars and directors including Woody Allen and Robert de Niro, but these days tends to write books about the love of his life….the City of Paris and it’s literary history. Indeed John also conducts walking tours of his favourite literary haunts in Paris – the tours ending at his apartment building where guests are invited upstairs for lunch and can view his vast collection of books.

To get an idea of Johns depth of knowledge about Paris and the famous writers who have lived and worked there I suggest reading either of his books “The most beautiful walk in the World” or “Five Nights in Paris” – a book about Paris after dark. These are just two of John’s books about Paris…there are many more.

It’s only a few months ago that I read my first John Baxter book – “A pound of paper” – which I thought was a very well written, knowledgeable book about books, the book trade and book collecting. He’s very easy to read and his writing flows in such a way that before you know it you’ve finished the book….and are looking for his next one. I’ve since read three others and am eager for more. He’s a treat to read.

It is his passion for collecting books that made me look more carefully at the books that I buy…..and to look for bargain investments in second hand shops. Just this month I acquired – a 3 volume set of Finden’s Illustrations of Lord Byron’s Life & Works. Vol 1 and 2 printed in 1833 and vol 3 in 1834 – for the princely sum of NZ$15. On checking on AbeBooks.com the same books are currently selling for between US$250 and US$500. Although it is tempting, I won’t be selling the books, but will take my time in reading them and then who knows…they may be the first books in my “serious” book collection.

As I said, you never know what you’ll find in second hand shops. Happy hunting!