Oxford time does not have the rhythms of ordinary time. There are very few moments for extended, contemplative, peaceful reading, of the sort which fill quiet winter nights, heavy summer days, or sweaty commutes with books read wedged between tired workers and restless children. To read here is to inhale, process, and document, usually in a college or faculty library, in the oppressively quiet Bodleian or Rad Cam, or perhaps in bed, willing oneself to stay awake.
Hill’s literary memoir starts with a search for a book – Howards End, itself with a wonderfully ambivalent, serendipitous beginning – and fashions itself into a year of reading from her already existing library. Forming this relationship with the books that do furnish her rooms sends her on a discovery of new novels, old favourites, and the memories associated with their authors or characters. Reading for review and publishing is still a part of her life, yet a new kind of love for books, either weighing up her favourite Dickens, or lauding certain novels (The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford is one of her dearest, and one of mine) is the focus. A personal, deeply-felt relationship is at the heart of her reading: ‘I am the unique sum of the books I have read’, and in her desire to ‘repossess’ her books, she comes to repossess herself, as a well and widely read woman who feels guilty at not having read Villette, or who loves children’s books. Much of the book is also an account of meetings and impressions with people (literary people, but still real people), for instance finding herself looking into the ‘watery eyes’ of an elderly E.M. Forster in the London Library, or being dragged by the hand to the floor at a party by a wrinkled, smoky Auden – some of it makes one feel unutterably jealous. What nineteen-year-old would not be at the memoir of a writer who started their published career at eighteen? Her world of literary memories is exciting to read, and so deeply personal is the recollection of the effect of books upon her shimmering social life, that what it really points us towards is a renewed faith in the vibrancy one’s own reading can add to a busy life.
Indeed, a new host of books about books has recently popped onto the market – read Laura Freeman’s The Reading Cure and Bookworm by Lucy Mangan, and revisit the now twenty-years-old witty Ex Libris of Anne Fadiman. The way we live now, and relate to our reading is couched in the good things we can get from it – whether it be overcoming anorexia, or more simply instilling a love of reading from youth which has led to a certain career, or way of life centred around reading. Finding the perfect book for one’s mood becomes a sort of therapy: I read Tartt’s The Secret History under a great, auburn oak tree when I felt nervous at being around new people, perhaps to remind me that new friendships can be dangerous; What Ho, Jeeves, when I felt desperately homesick; and Max Beerbohm’s Oxford-set glittering tragi-comedy Zuleika Dobson as I started to really adore my work, my friends, my college.
There is something joyful in carving out one’s own world of reading within the midst of academic work’s judicious skim-reading; to have one’s own thoughts and widening knowledge which might unconsciously inform an essay, but probably will not. With its change of pace, it can even make other reading more pleasurable, more streamlined, and certainly richer. It is not a question of what is useful, but what makes oneself content. It might be a thriller, a flimsy comedy, a new biography or a worthy tome (I think every non-humanities student should have to read at least one novel a term). If it is the last thing you look at at night, first thing turned to in the morning, that is all very well – but casual dipping, chance encounters with interesting blurbs, or the deep immersion into an unexpectedly brilliant book, add a literary, and emotional agency which is lacking from most reading lists and social activities. Reading like this can be easily communal, a nice thing to chat about over lunch, or manifest itself in favourite poems being sent over Messenger. If it makes you happy, you’re doing it right.