Jacob’s Room is Full of Books: A Year of Reading, Susan Hill 2017
As with her prior book, Howards End is on the Landing, I loved spending time with Susan Hill between the covers of this book. Hill, a 79 year old author, editor, publisher, and general ‘know-it-all’ writes with flair and strong opinions about books, and reading this volume felt like sitting in a coffee house or brew pub with a good friend who is an avid reader with lots of time to talk about recent discoveries and old favorites. And Hill has lots of both. She remains dedicated to Dickens, Woolf, Hardy, Wodehouse, Greene and Ford Maddox Ford as well as Edith Wharton and Georges Simenon, and has added some more contemporary favorites as well—Julian Barnes, Kazuro Ishiguro, Penelope Fitzgerald, Anita Bookner, Shirley Hazzard, and Zadie Smith. Perhaps I like this book so much because that list of old and new favorites is so similar to my own. Like Hill, I discovered Bookner and Hazzard when I read their books as an homage after reading of their deaths, even though I’d never heard of either one of them. If Hill has any fault it is that she is extremely Anglo-centric with hardly a mention of any American author other than to express displeasure at the inclusion of Americans in the competition for the Man Booker Prize. In the course of the book I learned that she has never been to the U.S. and has no wish to visit—strange for someone so worldly and interested in writing. On the other hand, she has some wonderful things to say about some of my favorites. She evidently loves James Wood, my favorite Harvard Professor and her favorite critic (” (he) has taught me more about novels, the reading and writing thereof than anyone else since Virginia Woolf”). She is high on Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature in which he says that ‘good reading is always re-reading partly because the first time one is anxious to find out what happens next….The very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation.” She concludes that a good writer needs a good reader and the latter is one that is attentive and thoughtful. She also writes a long paragraph about her love of books about ‘books and reading’ which I share. Finally, I think that her observations about writing are enough of a reason to read this book: “One good book leads to another is the rule of life.” and with reference to Shirley Hazzard’s We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think she says “Graceful, elegant, apposite, balanced, intelligent prose is then good, is beautiful and fit for purpose. Some writers could make a book about bathroom fittings delightful and satisfying to read. Shirley Hazzard is such a one.” Finally, her description of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse’s Time Passes section was totally in sync with mine: “Virginia Woolf plants her shock carefully and cleverly, to make the maximum impact. It is not for one moment foreseen.” So true! This book isn’t perfect. The trope of the calendar with her comments on the weather, the garden, and the birds feels forced, and her choice of a title is particularly annoying. Who ever heard of Jacob’s Room, one of Virginia Woolf’s most obscure titles? On the other hand, I am grateful for her engagement with books which like her, I dearly love. I think her better effort was her earlier book Howard’s End is on the Landing which concludes with a list of The Final Forty, books which she would take to a desert island if she could only bring 40. Worth finding and reading.