Nine years ago I read Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading, a book in which she wrote about the books from her own collection she’d read or re-read over the course of a year. Jacob’s Room is Full of Books is a similar book in that it follows month by month a year during which she reflects on the books she has read, reread, or returned to the shelves as well as her thoughts on a whole variety of topics.
It’s full of her observations on the weather, on nature – birds, flowers, trees, moles, eels, egrets and so on – on writers and writing, about religion and fairy tales and many more besides as well as on books. She also writes about herself and notes her obsessions with, for example, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Set, Marilyn Monroe, wood engravings, medieval monasticism, Elizabeth Bowen, Benjamin Britten and her collection of Ladybird Books. Some of her observations on other topics are short but conjure up vivid pictures, such as in November she recorded: ‘RAINING. Sky like the inside of a saucepan.‘ (page 208) And in October: ‘THIS GOLDEN OCTOBER continues to drift slowly down like a twirling leaf.’ (page 186)
One of the things I like about this book is the passion with which Susan Hill writes and her strong opinions about books, writers, literary prizes, what makes a good reader and so on and so forth, that she has no qualms about expressing (and why should she?) You are left in no doubt about what she does and does not like. For example she likes Robert Louis Stevenson (so do I) and the way he cleverly and cunningly creates a sense of sinister and evil in his creation of Mr Hyde. She thinks he’s the ‘perfect writer’ (page 188) and describes him thus: ‘Next to Dickens, I think RLS was the greatest writer of his time.’ (page 54) She didn’t like fairy tales as a child (I did), describing fairies as
Wispy, wafty, wish-washy things. Nowhere near on a par with sprites and goblins, witches, wizards, trolls. As a child I lapped up stories about any of these. I can understand why I did not, and do not, have any patience with fairies and their stories. They are so colourless (despite Andrew Lang’s best attempts). So dull. Yes. Just dull. (page 21)
And yet as a child she also liked the Flower Fairies books by Cecily Mary Baker (as did I) and pored over their illustrations, but followed that up by describing them as ‘just an excuse for pretty pastel pictures.‘
She doesn’t like fantasy and science fiction, although as a child she loved fantasy. She likes, amongst others, Thomas Hardy, Somerset Maugham, Raymond Chandler, Muriel Spark and Barbara Pym, to a certain extent, describing her books as ‘dated, but not dated enough’, but not Jane Austen – oh my, I love Jane Austen’s books:
I read most of the reissued novels [of Pym’s] at the time and never entirely saw the point of the praise, probably because everyone compared them to Jane Austen and that is never a good recommendation to me. (page 200)
She then goes on to change her mind about Pym after reading Shirley Hazzard’s review of Pym’s Quartet in Autumn, which I haven’t read, but after reading her description I think I would like.
She has no interest left in the First World War, particularly in fiction about it (I have) since she wrote Strange Meeting in 1971, but she admires Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, but has ‘not even tried Parade’s End‘. She seems to have more time for the Second World War novels, praising Olivia Manning’s novels, the Balkan and Levant trilogies, which reminds me I still haven’t read the third book in the Balkan Trilogy.
She is scathing about creative writing courses: ‘I don’t suppose anything is obligatory for these courses, which are as thick as autumn leaves on the ground. Writing is the thing. Ye gods.’ (page 189)
There’s plenty more on the same lines about other authors and books – there are many, many more that I could mention – and I found it all fascinating, rambling and chatty, a bit repetitive in parts, but still fascinating. And there is a list of the books she refers to at the end of the book. It’s probably a book that could stand a second reading.
And as she says:
Reading is magic. Books are magic. It starts when we are shown picture books and realise there is another world beyond the everyday one we know. Once we can read ourselves, we live inside the magic. The only problem is that we have to emerge at the end of a book, and we don’t want to return to that dull domestic world we know. The only solution to that problem, of course, is that there is always the next book, and the next and there is bonus magic if it is another in a series we already love, so we are plunging back into a magic other world but one we already know. We feel a lift of the heart, a lurch of the stomach, when we find ourselves in it again. (pages 55 – 56)
Yes, reading is, indeed, magic!
- Hardcover: 272 pages
- Publisher: Profile Books (5 Oct. 2017)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 9781781250808
- ISBN-13: 978-1781250808
- ASIN: 1781250804
- Source: a library book
- My Rating: 5*