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Jacob’s Room Is Full of Books

posted on 02 Nov 2017

Jacob’s Room Is Full of Books by Susan Hill

There are plenty of reasons why Susan Hill should be an unlikely choice for me to read. Upper middle class, Anglican, conservative; she would almost certainly, I think, describe herself as a ‘countrywoman’, and she is almost certainly too that old-fashioned creature, a ‘bookwoman’ (some years ago stalwarts of the booktrade were typically described as ‘bookmen’ – there was even, perhaps still is, a trade publication called Books & Bookmen).

Anyway, be all that as it may, the fact remains that against all expectation Hill’s two books about books and reading – Howards End is on the Landing (2009), and the recently published Jacob’s Room Is Full of Books – have consistently given me immense pleasure.

The earlier title is undoubtedly the best, because it has a central idea and this gives it a clearer structure and purpose. Hill set out to spend a year reading only books she already possessed. Reviewing it HERE in 2015, Letterpress found it ‘suffocatingly middle class and self-satisfied’. I wish I could tell you that that is overly harsh – but I can see that any reader determined to see the faults of Hill’s book would find them. All I can tell you is that for some reason in this instance I am impervious to the faults: I love the book and have read it several times.

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The second book it must be admitted is a scrappier affair. A sort of diary, made up of reading, book buying, disposing of books, passing thoughts on writing and reading, re-evaluations of favourite old books… Taken overall, it doesn’t add up to much more than that. And yet, I still found it fascinating.

I think the secret is that I simply like to read books by people whose lives and daily routines are utterly immersed in books. But the other thing that both of Hill’s books have is atmosphere and beautifully observed detail. In the first one, Hill’s old Cotswold farm house featured strongly; in the new one, her Norfolk house and the scoured East Anglian landscape are similarly prominent. A tawny owl hoots down the chimney. Cats and dogs sit companionably by while she reads long into the winter nights. You learn something of the tides of books that sweep into – and out of – her library, as space is made for new books, old ones that have been read and reassessed are eased out, or cherished favourites are lugged around to be given a more prominent or convenient position where they will more readily remind her that they too are waiting to be reread.

The joy of both books is that they send me searching out books of my own. She said what about such-and-such? I must read it again! (Before I was half-way through Jacob’s Room I had had to look out three titles and put them close at hand for rereading.)

For all that it is easy to stereotype Hill, her opinions are often surprising. She dislikes Jane Austen (but would rather have Barbara Pym – but then only really one particular Pym novel); the thing she most regrets being unable to afford when younger is a David Hockney print – she adores Hockney, but generally is fairly indifferent to painting and the visual arts. She likes Richard Ford – because she likes ‘long novels which suck me into the everyday life of provincial America’ – but readily admits that when he was recommended to her she had never even heard the name before. She was a friend of Iris Murdoch but acknowledges that ‘her odd fantasy-cum-philosophical castles-in-the-air are hard to take now’; but she also thinks that in describing her dementia and death, husband John Bayley betrayed Murdoch’s dignity.

Tucked away in here are lovely reminiscences of Martin Amis, Susan Sontag and Christopher Hitchens swanning rather grandly around the Hay festival (she loves Amis, loathes Hitchens and is intimidated by the intellectual aristocracy of Sontag), evenings spent at John and Myfanwy Piper’s cottage (staying overnight in The Book Room, when a hand reaching from bed in any direction would encounter crammed shelves), and surprisingly grand dinners with J B Priestley and Jacquetta Hawkes.

At one point, Hill describes a barn owl gliding beside her under a full moon as she walked through a meadow at her previous Cotswold home. ‘Magic,’ she says, ‘always touches us when unbidden and least expected.’

Well, that, put simply, is why these two books give me so much pleasure. I can see their faults, and yet – unbidden, unexpectedly – their magic touched me. I don’t think one can ask for more and I shall read both of them again in the future.

 

Alun Severn

November 2017