I get a delight in reading a good book or seeing a good play which is hard to describe. It’s something about being transported outside myself into another, imagined, world whose existence I totally believe in, even though it may be as alien to me as 19th century London, as in my favourite author, Charles Dickens, or Elizabethan England, as in my favourite playwright, Shakespeare. For the time of my reading or my listening I am not me, a 21st century Londoner, but a person living the life of the characters I am reading about or watching.
What greater joy, then, for me to come across a delightful book by the writer, Susan Hill, called Howards End is on the Landing – a year of reading from home. In it, she describes how she decided not to buy any new books for a year, but instead to explore the contents of her library and only read books she found there. Each chapter then covers a particular topic, such as which books she now knows she will never read, such as Cervantes’ Don Quixote or James Joyce’s Ulysses, and which have inspired her in different ways. The whole book is a charming and well-informed exploration of what makes reading so pleasurable for her, a writer.
Two other books, much weightier these, are now sitting on my coffee table, one waiting to be explored, the other into its second reading. I have just bought Neil Macgregor’s A History of the world in 100 objects, the book of the marvellous radio series of that name by the Director of the British Museum. I have vowed to read one entry a day for 100 days, and am now on to entry 3 after 3 days.
Finally, to the most extraordinary book of poetry I have ever seen, or perhaps not really a book even, more a moving homage in words and photos and collages to a brother who died young and far away from her. It is called, simply, Vox (voice in Latin) and is by a Canadian poet I had never heard of, called Anne Carson. She says of it that "When my brother died I made an epitaph for him in the form of a book. This is a replica of it, as close as we could get." It consists of one continuous page of paper, folded 100 times or more and all lying beautifully encased in a box about 8 x 2 ½ ins (24 x 6 cms for you younger people) in size. That somebody should have had the courage to do something so original and then manage to find a publisher daring enough to publish the book (New Directions in New York) is reassuring confirmation that artistic originality can still be promoted even in these days of Big Brother and the X Factor.