Envy is not an attractive emotion. Google it and you’ll learn that it clouds thought, clobbers generosity, precludes serenity and shrivels the heart. Of the seven deadly sins, envy is the most common, the most insidious and the only sin that’s no fun at all. I’m not sure about that last bit, because I’ve had two days reading a book that’s made me sickish with envy, but given me pure pleasure.
The book is by Susan Hill, and you could say that the perennial of envy took root in my weedy heart years ago when my son, then aged nine, asked me: ‘Why aren’t you a real writer like Susan Hill?’ He was deep in The Woman in Black and it was the best book he’d ever read.
I admit it stung a little to be judged by my son and found lacking, but I didn’t hold this against him. Nor did I hold it against Susan Hill. I simply didn’t read her books. Not even The Woman in Black.
But last week, I saw the new Susan Hill in Waterstones and was struck by the title: Howards End is on the Landing. I took it upstairs to look through while I had a coffee, and didn’t stop reading for 15 pages. It begins with a snakebite of familiarity: looking for a book that she knows is on a shelf on the landing, but can’t find. As she searches, she sees at least a dozen books she’s never read. And so it unfolds.
She decides to spend a whole year going through the books in her house-an old farmhouse in the north Cotswolds reading the unread. She determines not to buy any books during the 12 months, a courageous vow not to be undertaken lightly, and to reacquaint herself with the books she already owns.
Even as I paid for the book, covert feelings began to bubble up. Imagine having the time to spend a whole year reading the unread books in your house (I know we all have the same number of hours in a day, the same number of days in a week). Okay.
Imagine having the discipline to use that time in such a purposeful way. And the self-control not to buy a book for a whole year. Moreover, imagine recognising your epiphany on the landing, realising that you want, you need, to get to know your own books again. I could feel my heart shrivel, not at the shelves crammed with books, but at the clarity, the understanding, the commitment.
The start of her journey (‘this was a personal journey, not a mission’) coincided with her decision to curtail her use of the internet. ‘Too much internet usage fragments the brain and dissipates concentration,’ she writes. She claims it leads to mental mal-nutrition, blunts concentration. When she rationed it strictly, she had more time to read, her attention improved and she could concentrate for longer periods.
It helps that Susan Hill has been a real writer for 50 years. Her voice on the page is younger than the date of birth on her passport, so one reads with disbelief her memories of writers she has known during her long writing life. C. P. Snow and his wife, Pamela Hansford Johnson, who were her friends and patrons. Edith Sitwell. W. H. Auden. William Plomer. Bruce Chatwin. Charles Causley. Elizabeth Jane Howard.
She ends with a list of 40 titles, her Desert Island Books. If you don’t count those Anglo-Americans Henry James and T. S. Eliot, the list only includes two Americans, Carson McCullers and Raymond Chandler. I forgive her, because she’s High Anglican in her faith and in her literary DNA.
It’s a common belief that the envious want to destroy the happiness of others. My envy isn’t like that. I simply want to emulate Susan Hill’s year. To break relations with my shallow and demanding friend, the internet. To have the nun-like dedication to stay away from bookshops. To take books from my shelves, books that didn’t turn me into a real writer, but gave me insight and hope. To sit. To read. To feast on the books of my life.
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