21 Jan 2010 – from Jen

Gosh – here I am in August reading books from January… just realised!

I heard about this book on the Dovegreyreader blog and immediately added it to the wishlist.  What’s not to like when you have an established author married to a Shakespeare Professor, living in a big house full of books and deciding to only read from her current collection for a year?

Well, there was some stuff to like, and some to dislike, and some to argue with.  And that’s the mark of an excellent read, isn’t it?  The book is divided into short sections which dip into reading, Hill’s life as a reader and as an author, and all sorts of bits and pieces. The short section style is eminently suitable for treat reading, especially in quite a busy week, although I did devour great gobbets of it at once.  This is definitely a book to read once, fast, and again, slowly (as she is told to do with Proust).

So – I got a bit annoyed on p. 6 when she talks about “I know people… whose books are even catalogued, in card indexes, on spreadsheets or even on infernal systems on websites where it is possible to log your own library and arrange virtual books on virtual shelves”, as I love my LibraryThing account and wouldn’t be without it.  But it becomes clear that Hill loves the chaos of her books, their odd juxtapositions, the serendipity of coming across something when looking for something else – and she also champions books AS books, holding out against the little grey e-reader…  and there’s a lot more to like in the book.

Hill confesses at the beginning to be worried about seeming to name-drop, but I love her encounters with other writers, placed in context within the book and her life.  Her meeting with Edith Sitwell is hilarious and cringeworthy, and there are a lot of other writers in here too.   A whole section is devoted to Iris Murdoch, which of course pleased me greatly – including two meetings, one where she is hale and hearty and one when she is sadly unwell.  I like the assessment that Murdoch’s reputation is going through a dip at the moment due to her having died fairly recently, that she reclaims her from the miserable film and Bayley books, and that a Murdoch could in fact be included in her forty books for a desert island.

I also like her discursions on books she hasn’t read (she knows all about Don Quixote… but has never read it) and books she can’t finish, and I have to love her description of saving up some unread books for “when I am very old, or have an illness that requires me to stay in bed for days but that does not make me feel too rotten to read” – don’t we all have Books I Will Read If I Break My Leg?  And she admits she can’t get into Jane Austen, which is a big admission to make.

So, a challenging and at the same time comforting read – for the basic assumption under all of the book is that books MATTER, and that’s got to be a good thing, of course. Even if they’re not catalogued.