It won't come as any surprise to you to hear that Susan Hill's Howards End is on the Landing is turning out to be a most enjoyable collection of bookish essays. I will say that she does have some very decided opinions about things, some of which I don't agree with, but it is always good to read another perspective of the world. I am trying to read an essay a day and just read leisurely rather than plow through. This seems a book to be savored slowly.
Today's essay is about libraries, which seems fitting since it is National Library Week. She comes about it in a circuitous route but with a nice flow. It starts with the question (or maybe statement) that girls read more than boys, and then she wonders if it is true with women and men. And then she brings up a topic after my own heart--middlebrow literature. Two teasers for you today, and this one is one I had to mark in my book since she brings up author Barbara Pym.
"Would I like Barbara Pym? Where should I start? Anywhere, really. Odd that. It is not always the case. You should never begin reading George Eliot with Middlemarch, nor Trollope with The Way We Live Now, and one of the lesser Muriel Sparks might put you off for good. But Barbara Pym is Barbara Pym. Try Quartet in Autumn. On the other hand, start with Jane and Prudence. You will know within, say, thirty pages, whether she is your cup of tea or not, and if not, then that is probably that. I am glad I did not read The Mill and the Floss first or I would never have tried another George Eliot, and Travels with My Aunt is not a typical novel by Graham Greene, so it does not much matter if you do not care for it. But any Barbara Pym with give you the idea. If you like her, just read on."
That has been my experience, too. I love Barbara Pym and I think Quartet in Autumn is my favorite so far. I have yet to try Trollope--duly noted where not to start, but I must admit the only Eliot novel I have read so far is Middlemarch. I love Muriel Spark, but I think it is right to pick up one of her best known or most important books first and then fill in the rest. Pym comes about as a subject when thinking about her mother and the Boots Libraries found in shops.
And then she changes tack and starts to talk about, maybe lament a bit, today's libraries and how much they have changed (not necessarily in her opinion for the better). She recalls as a child going to the library when she was young--her mother going into the main library while she went into the children's building--and does such a thing exist anymore?
"There was one in Scarborough, attached, but separate from, the main lending and reference libraries and when we arrived there every Saturday morning, my mother walked in at one side while I walked down to the other. If the private library had Boots' stamps and stickers,the public children's library sometimes had labels on a book declaring that it had been fumigated. Infectious and contagious diseases were still rife then. Chickenpox. Measles. Scarlet fever. Tuberculosis. Mumps. Whooping cough. Children died of them. Books that went into infected houses might be returned thick with germs, so it was necessary to report certain illnesses when books were returned, so that they could be put into special fumigation chambers to be rendered clean and safe again."
I had no idea. Sometimes library books, well worn and heavily used do look like they could be carrying all kinds of germs, and I think I might not mind if they were still fumigated!