I love reading books about books in a way that I do not like the everlasting catalogue of Christmas books that thumps on to the carpet around November, from the colour supplement or Amazon or almost everywhere, EXCEPT the Primrose Hill Bookshop list which comes out twice a year, summer and winter which is a good catch-up moment for books one may have missed.
But two especially interesting and favoured books about reading are Susan Hill‘s 2017 memoir called Jacob’s Room is Full of Books and Marilynne Robinson’s memoir When I Was a Child I Read Books. There are two reasons for selecting these two, one, Susan Hill is quintessentially English and Marilynne Robinson is quintessentially American, so there is little overlap and also because they both talk interestingly about themselves, where they read, what they read and what they admire about books – about the physicality of the page, the typeface, the handling of the book, its heft.
For me, this is one of the abiding things, the heft of the books itself – light or heavy; and the placement of various moments on the page, I can vividly recall where exactly on the page something happened, something ordinary or scary or unusual – that pinpoint accuracy used to annoy the hell out of my husband who thought I must skim read!
Susan Hill writes marvellous books anyway, so it is a particular joy to find out what she likes to read herself. Jacob’s Room is set over a whole year of reading and it includes nuggets of country life – Norfolk now and Oxfordshire once upon a time; France where she goes on holiday; books taken from shelves in rented cottages and found in charity bookshops; new books sent by publishers all read in shady corners on hot days, or beside a wood fire in winter, along with comments on the arrival and departure of migrant birds – who knew that Same West (the actor) was also a birdwatcher – and the hedgehogs that live in her garden.
It seems that she is an observant naturalist as well as a people watcher, and I love that. Best of all, at the back of the book is a list of all the books she mentions in the book – so helpful, so thoughtful of her.
The Marilynne Robinson memoir is rather different, it is a series of essays about the place of reading, not so much about different books but about different themes, it is a more complicated and nuanced book because it deals not so much with specific titles but with ideas in books, and praises writers who bring ideas into print.
Probably the funniest recent book about reading is Alan Bennet’s The Uncommon Reader, a small book by any standard but an absolute gem. If you haven’t already read it all you need to know about it is that The Queen discovers a mobile library parked near the kitchens at Buckingham Palace, and begins to borrow books…it is delightful, amusing and thoroughly well written. There is a mobile library that pops up in Susan Hill’s pages too. She has observed, sadly, the decline in visitors, once crowded with readers, it is now seldom used – so why keep it going.
Then there is also The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bithell, amusing and rather scary in places.