I read this book specifically for our current reading theme, in addition to the fact that I have a self-imposed book-buying ban (well, until the next Big Bad Wolf Book Fair, that is), and I thought that this reading memoir would provide some kind of illumination. I ended up feeling frustrated and compelled to maybe, just maybe in the foreseeable future, write my own. What was it that Toni Morrison once said?
Well, a girl can always dream, can’t she?
Written by: Susan Hill
Published by: Profile Books (2009)
ISBN: 1846682657 (ISBN13: 9781846682650) Book was borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library.
This is my first susan hill book. I was intrigued by the premise of ‘reading from home’ – something which I know I should be doing more. As she noted in her introduction or what she called Starting Note:
I wanted to repossess my books, to explore what I had accumulated over a lifetime of reading, and to map this house of many volumes. There are enough here to divert, instruct, entertain, amaze, amuse, edify, improve, enrich me for far longer than a year and every one of them deserves to be taken down and dusted off, opened and read. A book which is left on a shelf is a dead thing but it is also a chrysalis, an inanimate object packed with the potential to burst into new life. Wandering through the house that day looking for one elusive book, my eyes were opened to how much of that life was stored here, neglected or ignored.
And so, I entered this book with stars in my eyes, fully expecting my TBR to explode exponentially – only to gradually discover that Susan Hill’s bookshelf seems to consist predominantly of White authors. I suppose the first red flag for me can be found in page 48:
… I am not a traveller, nor even much of an armchair one…
Hmm.. I started to wonder. What could this possibly mean? Then I found even more red flags as I read the section she entitled The Well-Travelled Bookcase whereby she talked about White authors who have written travelogues. She talked about Bruce Chatwin who, as it so happens, is already on my TBR list:
The book he was promoting was called The Songlines, and was about Australian aborigines, in whom I had then, as now, little interest. But when Bruce started to talk you were spellbound..
Another hmmm for me. While I appreciated her candour (I know she is also of a stature that she couldn’t care less what other people thought), I found myself wondering – what else could she have a lack of interest in? And what does her reading interest consist of, then?
Further along, she talked about the many books that she has not yet read on her shelves in the section A Little List. On that list, she indicated this:
Eucalyptus, Murray Bail.
Someone told me that this was a great novel so I bought it, but then discovered that it was a great Australian novel so I put it away. I find it difficult to get to grips with Australian novels. Difficult, but not impossible.
I was like… jaw drop. I adore novels by Australian authors – be they picturebooks (where do I even begin? Shaun Tan, Margaret Wild, Armin Greder, Freya Blackwood), middle-grade/YA authors (Norman Lindsay, Craig Silvey, Meg McKinlay, Norman Jorgensen), or adult novelists (Tim Winton, Christos Tsiolkas, Geraldine Brooks).
And then, she mentioned that she also had issues with Alice Munro’s short stories:
With Munro, the problem is Canada. I have a problem with Canadian as I do with Australian writers. (I know, I know).
I get that she is also self-effacing in this regard, as she acknowledges her own predilections (or are they limitations?) as a reader. But at this point in time, I am beginning to have a bad taste in my mouth. As I read further along, I was trying to see if she mentioned anything by an African American novelist? None that I was able to find. Or anything from Africa as written by a non-White author? Zero. She did mention V. S. Naipaul, who was born in Trinidad and Tobago, but is still technically a British author. She made mention of one South American author: Carlos Maria Dominguez, and mentioned Gabriel Garcia Marquez in that quote, but nothing that suggests even a remote interest to read any of his novels. While she mentioned Don Quixote repeatedly and acknowledged its literary merit, she also stated that she does not feel compelled enough to read it. That was a life-changing book for me before I turned 20.
How about Southeast Asian novelists, you ask? Gosh, if she has problems with Australian and Canadian authors, can I actually expect that she’d read something from somewhere as remote as Singapore, or the Philippines, or Cambodia? And it’s not for lack of access to these titles, as Susan Hill also happens to be a publisher herself, and the UK has fairly well-stocked libraries.
As I have written in my Litsy review of this memoir, I find I have limited patience for those who claim to be wide readers, but seem to only confine themselves to reading predominantly White authors. It’s like the rest of the world does not exist.
While I know and am deeply aware of the authors she espouses: Thomas Hardy (whom I have read for leisure during my university years – not because it was required), and I spent my teenage years reading Charles Dickens, Edith Wharton, I have a great deal of Virginia Woolf in my shelves (most of them unread as of the moment), and E. M. Forster – there seems to be nothing in Susan Hill’s bookshelf that vaguely resembles me. What a sobering thought.
Then I also discovered how she felt about picturebooks, and preserving the ‘innocence of childhood’ and ensuring that young readers are only provided positive stories:
Realism comes home soon enough and many children have too much anguish to cope with in their everyday lives as it is. Their books can be one corner of life that remains untainted by the troubles brought upon their heads by unthinking, unloving adults. I am glad mine remained ignorant of much that is polluted, cruel, ugly, hurtful, wrong as long as possible (which is not, after all, very long, in the scheme of things) and that their books were wholesome, enriching, enlivening, enjoyable, lovable and, for the most part, were about worlds into which they could happily, innocently escape.
Oh, I am all for escapism and imagination and fantasy. And while I am happy for her that she is able to make this kind of choice for her own children, there is also very little recognition that she is writing this from a position of privilege. What is a choice for her happens to be the truth or the reality that some children experience each and every single day of their lives.
This online article: Captivating Kids Stories To Recognize Privilege discusses this in greater depth and with such eloquence and power – here is an excerpt from that very important article:
Every day, I see comments from friends, family, and even BFLers like this:
“I’m waffling between educating my white kids about all the terrible things that happen to children of color and protecting them from the truth. They’re so young. I don’t want them to be traumatized.”
This choice about what to tell our kids and when – is a privilege.
Those of us with daughters, children of color, and disabled kids have no choice but to teach our children about discrimination and violence – so they can survive.
That does not mean, however, that I did not enjoy the evident book love in this memoir, because there is a great deal of that, as can be seen in this quote:
Initially, I felt invisible as I was reading her memoir, belonging to that group that seemingly is not interesting enough to capture her attention as a reader. Then I felt impatient. Eventually, I thought about her being “the unique sum of the books I have read” – which led me to also think about my own shelves brimming with foreign titles (some of them are not even written in English) that I am eager to read and understand (there are apps that allow me to do this now – see my post here) to expand my own intimate knowledge of the world. Not to mention the fact that we are hosting our very own Literary Voyage Around the World Reading Challenge this year.
I ended up transforming that annoyance to feeling inspired to hopefully come up with my own reading memoir before I turn 50. So I have Susan Hill to thank for that. Like I said, a girl can dream.
#LitWorld2018GB Update: UK