Can you recommend something to read?

I am addicted to BBC Radio 4’s A Good Read.   I listen to Harriet Gilbert and guests in back to back episodes, pausing on my commute or interrupting my weekend potter to note down a particular novel, memoir or anthology.    My bedside table strains under the weight of recommended reads.

Piles of books
The current bedside table reading pile

One of Harriet Gilbert’s good reads was Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing.  It might feel a little circular (A Good Read recommends a book from an author reading and recommending other authors) but it got me thinking about the three books that have inspired me to read more widely, which were also a good read in their own right.

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Notes on book recommendations from Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing

For me the hero of the piece is Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree.   It’s the first in a series of anthologies of his writing (and reading) for Believer magazine.   There is only one book in the series where it feels like he has wearied of the venture, but even then I enjoyed his exasperation at spending so much time recommending books when he could be writing ‘real’ literature.  Sadly, I can’t remember which one, and I’m not willing to reread them all to identify the ‘bad’ one.    Anyway, its not The Polysyllabic Spree or Shakespeare Wrote for Money so tuck into those two.  Hornby’s reading is hugely varied and he (generally) only writes about books he has enjoyed so it’s a pleasure to enter his reading world.

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Nick Hornby’s reading list from The Polysyllabic Spree in April 2004

Susan’s Hill’s Howard’s End is on the Landing is more memoir.  She spends a year reading only the books found in her home and ruminates on her literary influences and preferences.   Of the three books it was from Hill’s memoir that I personally discovered the most new authors as her choices were, on the whole, slightly more obscure works.  Hill recently followed up this memoir with Jacob’s Room is Full of Books, which is more a diary of scattered bookish thoughts than memoir.

And if you think it’s a cheat that two of my three book recommendation companion pieces come from Nick Hornsby, then you should replace one with Andy Miller’s A Year of Reading Dangerously.  The book title is still a complete mystery to me, but similar to Hill, Miller set himself a reading challenge for one year.  His focus is on how reading the great novels from his ‘List of Betterment’ can bring wonder into his dreary life.   Both books end with a definitive list of books to read in a year (or a lifetime).

The key difference is that while Susan Hill is firmly ensconced in the literary world and her memoir is full of sketches and anecdotes of literary figures, Miller’s challenge relates more to mastering the classics and creating a reading habit.   Funny and inspiring, I’ve just added Miller’s book back to my bedside pile to read again soon.

And do these books work?   Yes.  Here are the books I can remember reading based on Hill, Hornby and Miller’s recommendations:

  • A Writer’s Diary – Virginia Woolf
  • The Blue Flower – Penelope Fitzgerald
  • The Wrector’s Daughter – F. M. Mayer
  • Skellig – David Almond
  • The Rights of the Reader – Daniel Penance
  • Poppy Shakespeare – Clare Allen
  • The Diary of a Nobody – George & Wheedon Grossmith
  • Weetzie Bat – Francesca Lia Block
  • Little Children – Tom Perrotta

A Good Read, Book Recommendations