Howards End is on the landing
Howards End is on the Landing is poetry for my mind and soul.
The famous novelist Susan Hill (The woman in black) wrote this essay, which is more of journey through her life and books, after deciding to spend a year reading only books that she had already in her vast home library, without buying 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 off, opened and read. A book which is left on a shelf is a dead thing but it is also a chrysalis, an inanimate object packed with the potential to burst into new life ( . . . ) The start of the 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.”
Each chapter is about different books and subjects and it’s full of anecdotes on Hill’s life, on her experience as a reader and writer, on her meeting famous authors, on reading and much more, written in a magnificent, poetic, elegant and suggestive style. We discover (or re-discover) forgotten or underrated authors and we feel the need to be nurtured by them.
Hill is a true writer. She masters literature, she studied it, she absorbed it, she lived it and has created a masterpiece, a book that should be translated and published everywhere, a book to study, especially by the thousand of people who nowadays write and self-publish. I was told that the number of authors surpasses that of readers, which sadly means that many who write and call themselves writers don’t read, resulting in endless mediocre books and impoverishment and decline of true writing. Just as studying the whole medical encyclopaedia doesn’t makes us doctors, writing something doesn’t automatically makes us writers.
Howards end is on the landing also tackles the lost sense of reading today. People compete on the number of books they read in a short time, missing the full experience. “A strange competitiveness has emerged among some readers in the last few years. I have known book-bloggers boast of getting through twenty books plus, a week, as if they were trying for a place in the Guinness Book of Records. Why has reading turned into a form of speed dating? And then there is fashion and the desire to have the very latest book – which doesn’t matter a scrap so long as the book is wanted for itself, not just because it is the one everybody is talking about, and so long as plenty of other, unfashionable books are desired as well. ( . . . ) The best books deserve better. Everything I am reading during this year has so much to yield but only if I give it my full attention and respect it by reading it slowly. Fast reading of a great novel will get us the plot. It will get us names, a shadowy idea of characters, a sketch of settings. It will not get us subtleties, small differentiations, depth of emotion and observation, multilayered human experience, the appreciation of simile and metaphor, any sense of context, any comparison with other novels, other writers. Fast reading will not get us cadence and complexities of style and language. It will not get us anything that enters not just the conscious mind but the unconscious. It will not allow the book to burrow down into our memory and become part of ourselves, the accumulation of knowledge and wisdom and vicarious experience which helps to form us as complete human beings. It will not develop our awareness or add to the sum of our knowledge and intelligence. Read parts of a newspaper quickly or an encyclopaedia entry, or a fast-food thriller, but do not insult yourself or a book which has been created with its author’s painstakingly acquired skill and effort, by seeing how fast you can dispose of it.”
I cannot say I’m on the exact, extraordinary journey that Hill’s undertook with this book, but lately I’ve been reading more the way she suggested, I’ve been thinking and I’ve rediscovered how reading properly feeds our souls, how good writing improves our minds and our perspective on the world, how we feel spiritually rich when we internalise and live a book, and how this has nothing to do with the mere accumulation of information.
A book to be read and reread.