Thursday, April 08, 2010


Acquired tastes

Books about books have been casting out lures to me for much of my life, lures I have not resisted, or even wanted to resist. Reading them comforts me. Other booklovers are out there, suffering from this same affliction. And as I accumulate more books and discover they need to be tended to, dealt with, decided upon, lived with, cared for, and I don't know what-all, and on top of all that, dusted regularly, and, oh yeah, read, I realize that it truly is an affliction. I am coming to know the weight of books. Their spiritual and physical heft. This presents a conundrum, because as I grow older, I want to be lighter. So, while I love my books, I want to live with less of them. Fewer, and better. Stuff of all kinds is shifting around our house during this construction project, and I feel a big book sort coming on to help lighten the load. A cull. How dreadful.

In her latest book, Howard's End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home (Profile 2009), author Susan Hill faces her own houseful of books and realizes she hasn't read many of the ones she wishes to read, and re-read. So, she sets herself a year of no new book purchases, in order to read what she already has. I can't imagine being that stringent with myself, but I can certainly sympathize, so the book makes for interesting reading. I picked up a secondhand copy at the recommendation of a reader I trust, having read no other books by Hill except a lovely collection of her gardening essays. But once I saw the dust jacket, I knew I was doomed. Just look at it. Books about books are bad enough, but when they also have pictures of books on their covers I know I am doubly doomed. Must Own.

The book contains a series of short essays about her bookish loves and hates, ranged over her year of self-imposed restraint. She has me with her immediately, as a reader, because she begins with The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy L. Sayers. I am on her side. Then she loses me an instant later by saying that in the other Sayers books "...the Wimsey-Harriet Vane love story is embarrassing..." (p.15). I myself am happily romantic, gullible, and naive, so I do not find this love story embarrassing, in fact just the opposite. This little episode, early on, serves as a barometer for the rest of Hill's book. I was with her, so often - she loves Patrick Leigh Fermor, and some of Bruce Chatwin - and then she lost me completely and utterly - she cannot read Jane Austen, doesn't see the point, and name-calls James Lees-Milne, even though she loves his early diaries. But she had me again, with terrific chapter titles such as Never Got Around to It, Don't Like the Look of It, Couldn't Get Beyond Page Ten and Other Poor Excuses, which begins:

"There is no reason why most of the books I own but have never actually read should be more or less in one place. They just are. Maybe they quietly gravitated into the sitting room one by one, to sob and huddle together for warmth." (p.63)

So good. But she lost me again completely, by writing such things as "Bookplates are for posers..." (p.124) and "Antiquarian booksellers, whose trade is in books but who rarely seem to read them..." (p.126) Ouch! Then I came back to her way of thinking: "Books should pay rent." (p.200) The whole book was like this, a back-and-forth describing her highly personal reading selection and strong opinions about books and book people. Her own, often divergent from the tastes of others (mine, say, or yours), which is as it should be. She describes her house, full of her books, after all.

Reading this was like consuming a dish with one ascerbic ingredient, added for piquancy. Balsamic vinegar? Capers? Strong taste, with bite, and often delicious. If you enjoy that kind of thing, as I do.

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