I was so excited to read Susan Hill’s second reading diary, Jacob’s Room is Full of Books, particularly as I so enjoyed her first, Howards End is On the Landing. Released in 2017, Hill has set out to chart ‘a year of her life through the books she has read, re-read or returned to the shelf’. I was expecting a similarly warming tone to the first instalment, as well as the excuse to fill up my to-read list with dozens more titles.
‘When we spend so much of our time immersed in books, who’s to say where reading ends and living begins?’ asks the book’s blurb. In Jacob’s Room is Full of Books, Hill shows how ‘the two are impossibly and gloriously wedded.’ Her reading diary promises to be ‘full of wry observations and warm humour, as well as strong opinions freely aired… a rare and wonderful insight into the rich world of reading from one of Britain’s most distinguished authors.’ The structure of Jacob’s Room is Full of Books is made up of small sections, all of which are arranged chronologically and slotted into monthly chapters, aiming to give one an insight into an entire year of reading.
Hill opens by discussing audiobooks and ebooks, and what she believes to be the strengths and pitfalls of both. She then touches briefly on what she thinks makes a bestseller, a theme which she comes back to again and again as the book goes on. More themes along these lines, which tend to become a little repetitive, are Hill’s telling us about her own writing career, and giving advice to aspiring writers.
My main qualm with Jacob’s Room is Full of Books is that there is a lot of non-reading-related content throughout. As opposed to Howards End is on the Landing, which is wonderfully bookish from beginning to end, there were quite a few points in the book when I wished Hill would stop mentioning her famous friends – often for little reason – and dig a little deeper into literature. She is concerned throughout with those whom she knows from the upper echelons of society, and various members of the royal family make cameos in sections which have nothing to do with reading. She does include quotes from other authors, or from books, but these rarely feel integrated well; rather, it takes one a little while to recalibrate and realise what Hill is doing. She is, as the blurb says, opinionated in this book, far more so than in the first.
Regardless, there are some nice, and relatable, paragraphs about book collecting, and various tomes which she has returned to over the years. A section which I particularly enjoyed takes place in February, when Hill feels the compulsion to reorganise her bookshelves. She writes: ‘Not the weather for standing around more than two minutes admiring the spring flowers, the weather for clearing out bookshelves. If we ever leave this house, we will not want to start doing it as the removal men are at the door. I thought I had cleared out all the books I would ever need to lose five years ago, but books breed. They beget second copies because you have mislaid the first and buy another, the day before you find the first.’ Another piece of writing which came across as warm and nostalgic involved Hill’s reminiscences about the joy of Ladybird books, after finding a box of forgotten titles from their catalogue in her attic. Particularly given this, her lack of sentimentality in keeping books surprised me; I imagine it is quite rare with regard to other avid readers and people who call themselves collectors of books to have no connection with very few physical objects they’ve read, and have the ability to get rid of them with no problems.
The book, overall, has a disjointed feeling to it, particularly with regard to the first few months of the year. In February, for instance, Hill begins her musings by talking about her greengrocer and how cheap it is to buy vegetables, and then she goes on to ask herself why she didn’t like fairytales as a child. The next sections detail, in order, Hill’s spotting of some herons whilst out on a walk, a wish for snow, and a website featuring many lists of five books, all of which have been recommended by different people. There are no connecting bridges to link the content; rather, it feels more like random day-to-day scribblings which have been taken straight out of a journal without much thought to how they fit together. Stylistically, Jacob’s Room is Full of Books is easy to dip in and out of in this manner, but when reading it all in one go, it does feel a little awkward.
I did enjoy Hill’s forays into nature writing, and felt that these worked well. However, I cannot help but think the book may have been stronger had it been marketed in less of a misleading way as A Year of Reading, and more as a year in the life exercise. Perhaps half, or maybe 60%, of the book is actually related to reading. Some months do include more of Hill’s thoughts about reading and writing, but there are far less recommendations here than in the first volume. The tone feels quite different too, and this is nowhere near as much of a cosy read as the first.
The balance in Jacob’s Room is Full of Books does not feel quite right, and some of the sections are so brief that they feel awkward to read. I had hoped that it would be a continuation of Howards End is on the Landing, but it does not fill that criteria in its execution. I found this volume disappointing on the whole; not what I thought, or hoped, it would be. However, Jacob’s Room is Full of Books is still a quiet, meditative read, particularly with regard to the nature she captures, and the slower sections about literature.