Today marks the beginning of Lent, a time when, for the next 40 days, some Christians give up a small pleasure – such as chocolate or cake – as a way to strengthen spiritual resolve. But what about giving up new books for Lent? The idea comes from author Susan Hill, who once went for a whole year – not just 40 days – without buying new books for her home library. Hill, best known for the novel, “The Woman in Black,” tells the story of her year without new books in “Howards End is on the Landing,” a 2009 memoir that just entered my house – yes, as a new book – when I got a copy for my birthday.
The title of Hill’s book was inspired by an autumn afternoon when she went looking for “Howards End” in her sprawling home library – not finding it at first, but coming across all sorts of other volumes on her shelves that she had never read, or forgotten she’d owned, or wanted to read for a second time. Those discoveries prompted a plan: For the next 12 months, Hill would add no new books to her house, focusing instead on reading – or rereading – the books she already owned.
“Some people give up drink for January or chocolate for Lent, others decide to live for a year on just a pound a day, or without buying new clothes,” says Hill, an English writer who lives in the North Cotswolds. “I decided to spend a year reading only books already on my shelves....”
Hill concedes the contradiction of an author – whose livelihood depends on people buying new books – swearing off new books for a year. “But this was a personal journey, not a mission,” she adds. “I felt the need to get to know my own books again.... I wanted to repossess my books, to explore what I had accumulated over a lifetime of reading, and to map this house of many volumes.”
Among the unread books Hill found on her shelves were Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities,” Thomas Mann’s “Buddenbrooks,” George Eliot’s “Romola” and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince.” It’s impossible to read “Howards End is on the Landing” without thinking of the unread books on your own shelves – perhaps enough reading to last 40 days, or even 40 years.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”