Sunday, November 29, 2009

Susan Hill is in the Roysse Room

When we first opened Mostly Books we had a tremendous amount of support from the blogosphere - not just from casual readers, but other booksellers (both here and abroad), other Abingdonians...and authors. And none more supportive than the author Susan Hill. At the time we were slightly overwhelmed that an author of her stature would take an interest in two neophytes just starting out, but as, over the years, we have kept in touch, got to know her better - it shouldn't have come as a big surprise. Susan is simply madly passionate about books, in a way that has meant her involvement in just about every aspect of their existence. And thus anyone who goes into this crazy business with even a scintilla of the same passion must (in Susan's view) must be on the side of the angels. Well that's my theory anyway... So when we spotted earlier this year in the publishing schedules that Susan had a book out this Autumn, and when we subsequently understood that it was a book 'about books themselves' we invited Susan to Abingdon, kept our fingers crossed, and were delighted when she accepted and we were able to welcome her to Abingdon on Friday. It was well worth three years' wait. It is not hyperbole to say that Susan Hill is a literary giant, having won a clutch of our most distinguished awards, and having been at the very heart of cultural life in this country for decades. She knows, has known or interviewed a genuine who's-who of writers over the past 40 years. She reads, writes, edits, publishes, promotes and judges books. And she is at her most animated, passionate and uncompromising when it comes to their defence. Susan began Friday's event with a defence against what she sees as a descent into a digital 'dark age', where the traditional book slowly, quietly - a la the fax machine - disappears from our lives almost by accident, with the attendant disappearance of much of the publishing industry. Her plea was no luddite call to resist e-books - quite the contrary - but to renew our appreciation of everything that is wonderful about the printed word, and not sleepwalk into a situation where global economics makes the production of books non-viable - and thus obsolete. The plea to rediscover books was a perfect introduction to Susan's main talk of the evening, her book Howard's End is On The Landing. The book is in essence a memoir - a very personal one - of someone doing just that, going through her house, and using the books that she rediscovered as a structure on which to hang her thoughts, views and experiences in the realm of books and publishing. If it had been anyone else, a personal trip down memory lane might be diverting at best, but the sheer wealth of literary experience that Susan has means this book verges on nothing less than a biography of modern literature and the culture of literature. In it questions are asked as to why the popularity of certain authors thrive - and why others seem to disappear without trace. Along the way - and Susan read a few during the evening - we are entertained with illuminating anecdotes of authors such as Roald Dahl and Iris Murdoch. There have, apparently, been grumblings from some quarters of the publishing world that Susan advocates 'not buying books' (which she didn't do for a year whilst writing the book. She also, incidentally, used the experience to wean herself off the Internet, something that benefitted her concentration and sanity). If this is true, then it's a classic case of missing the point. What Susan has done in producing this book is to take a pause, marshal her thoughts, look back (probably with the tiniest nudges from thoughts of mortality and legacy) and consider what is worth reading and why. I think if more people did this, then book sales generally might indeed decline, but I'd love to see what the bestseller lists would look like. Accompanying her at the event was her daughter Jessica, and she was able to give her own version of what it was like growing up in the house described in the book. As usual, several other bloggers have covered our event faster and far better than we could, and I suggest you take a look at the impressions of Gaskella, The Poet Laura-eate, Stuck-in-a-Book and Books Please. I reckon if you read all of these reviews, you'll have a much better idea of the power of Susan's talk - and the impact it made. My sincere thanks to Susan and Jessica for making it a very memorable evening, and closing a circle for Nicki and I that began before we even opened. My thanks also to members of the Mostly Booklovers - Julia, Patricia and Annabel - who helped out on the evening with tickets, booksales and refreshments. We've had a lot of people coming into the shop to say how much they enjoyed the event, and I know there were others who wanted to come but couldn't get a ticket. Whilst I can't honestly in my heart of hearts urge you to do something as drastic as stop buying books, I can urge you to read through HEIOTL (even if you borrow a copy), and I can definitely recommend that you take a moment to consider what you read, why you read it - and consider what different books and authors you might choose to give you a few different answers in your life. Naturally, we can help with you that if you pop in to the shop...