The Magic of the Written Word


Old houses tend to collect books, especially if the inhabitants are educated and cultured. My ancestral home in India is no exception: it is more than a hundred years old and is literally a refugee camp for books. You can see anything from the latest glossy paperback to a mildewed pamphlet from pre-Independence days; you can find bound volumes of Walt Disney comics sitting cheek-by-jowl with hardbacks of the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. And they pop up in the most unlikely places, including the bathroom cupboard.

I still remember when I first discovered Wodehouse. I was in my second year of engineering. It was a lazy Saturday afternoon, and there was nothing read – for me, an intolerable situation. So I prowled around, searching for anything at all, and came upon a moth-eaten hardbound book, its dust jacket long gone: the cover showed a man in butler’s attire chasing a portly boy. The title was The Inimitable Jeeves. I opened the book, scanned the first page, and sat down to read – and got up when the sun was setting. Plum had obtained another diehard fan.

I was reminded of this incident when I read the following sentence from the Howard’s End is on the Landing by Susan Hill:

A book which is left on a shelf is a dead thing but it is also a chrysalis, an inanimate object packed with the potential to burst into new life.

Yes indeed.
Susan hill went on a search to locate a particular book – Howard’s End by E. M. Forester, which was ultimately discovered on the landing – but that search took her across her own library, and through countless read and unread books. So she took a decision to stop buying new books, stay away from the internet, and revisit her old favourites.

Too much internet usage fragments the brain and dissipates concentration so that after a while, one’s ability to spend long, focused hours immersed in a single subject becomes blunted. information comes pre-digested in small pieces, one grazes on endless ready-meals and snacks of the mind, and the result is mental malnutrition.

The result is this wonderful tome, a memoir and a book of literary criticism rolled into one. It is a delightful enterprise to accompany this accomplished novelist on her wanderings around the house, meeting your own favourites and new authors along the way.

There was my childhood favourite, Enid Blyton;

Enid Blyton’s books did for my generation, and several generations since, what J.K. Rowling’s have done recently– broke that invisible barrier between children who are natural-born readers and children who are not.

I lived with those boys and girls, who were around my own age but lived far more interesting lives, with nicer houses, more fun parents, greater freedom to gallop about the countryside on horses, take out boats and bikes, and go hiking and mountain climbing. There were villains, there was danger, they got into scrapes, yet their world was essentially serene and safe and for the duration of the story I, like many thousands of other readers between the ages of seven and twelve or so, was wholly absorbed in it. These were my friends and companions, I was one of the Five and the Seven, I went to the Mountain of Adventure and Spooky Cottage, I was in the Fifth at Malory Towers.

The inimitable Charles Dickens;

A perfect, flawless Dickens would somehow be a shrunken, impoverished one. Yes, he is sentimental, yes, he has purple passages, yes, his plots sometimes have dropped stitches, yes, some of his characters are quite tiresome. But his literary imagination was the greatest ever, his world of teeming life is as real as has ever been invented, his conscience, his passion for the underdog, the poor, the cheated, the humiliated are godlike. He created an array of varied, vibrant, living, breathing men and women and children that is breathtaking in its scope.

Susan Hill has the same problem with Joyce that I have, and the same opinion!

Nor can I read Ulysses, though Stephen Fry, cleverer and better read than anyone I know, swears by it. He told me that it was just a question of diving in and swimming fast. Not for me it wasn’t, I drowned. But I will go to the gallows to uphold the right of Ulysses to be called a classic.

And this observation about one of my favourite authors was so spot on that I almost whooped in delight.

Dahl was one of those geniuses who happen along only very rarely in the world of children’s literature, someone who was totally in tune with the child’s way of thinking, and view of life, and with exactly what children needed from their stories. His language, like his characters, like his plots, is sometimes anarchic, a firework display of inventiveness. He gave permission to children to be true to their real selves, not the selves grown-ups were trying to turn them into, let alone those their parents fondly imagine them to be. That is why children respond to his books and probably always will. His stories are timeless in their appeal because the quality of insight is recognised by each new generation.

Ms. Hill makes a lot of insightful observations about how literature works. The fact that these are expressed in simple words does not take anything away from the profundity of the insight.

Novelist’s stories sometimes wear a slight air of pointlessness, as if they were made out of leftovers – either that or the novelist has never quite found the short-story voice.


Love is the most difficult thing to write about successfully. It is the litmus test of greatness in a novelist if a love story moves and convinces and never once makes the reader grimace, smirk or feel embarrassed. Modern novelists are bad at writing about love because they feel that it has to mean writing explicitly about sex.


Slow reading is deeply satisfying. I read two or three chapters of To the Lighthouse, or Little Dorrit, or The Age of Innocence or Midnight’s Children, and stop, go back, look at how the sentences and paragraphs are put together, how the narrative works, how a character is brought to life. But I want to think about what I have read before I move on for only in this way will I appreciate the whole as being both the sum of, and more than the sum of, its parts.

Susan Hill is by no means a literary snob. She is a reader, first and foremost, who takes pleasure in the written word. Which is why she can say

However great a writer is – Proust, say, or James Joyce the fact that so very many wiling and intelligent readers find them difficult, even impenetrable, is surely a mark, albeit in pencil, against them.


But if the lives of children in Elizabethan England, or a magical country called Narnia, and stories about creatures called Moomins are a means of escape from the often dull and tiresome everyday world, as well as being good books, what is the argument against that? Computer games are escapist, going to football matches or the cinema, or watching soaps or costume drama on television, are al forms of escapism. We need some.

Reading, all said and done, is an escape: from a reality that would drive us mad if we look at it squarely in the face. It is a drug, but one with no after-effects. It is an addiction that one does not want to cure.


As I climbed to the top of the house I came upon a book here on a stair, another book there on a window ledge, a small pile of books on the step outside a bedroom door, and saw that half of the books here lead a peripatetic life, never knowing where they will be expected to lay their heads next, while the rest sleep soundly for years in the same position, quite undisturbed. But as in the fairy tales, sooner or later someone wakes you, even from a sleep of a hundred years, and so I have woken books and taken them out, shaken them and slapped them on the back, opened them to the light and fresh air, sneezing as the dust has puffed up from their pages. It must have been a shock for them. Or perhaps it was a wonderful liberation, as they were brought back to life and fresh purpose like Lazarus, for a book which is closed and unread is not alive, it is only packed, like a foetus, with potential.

Was it a shock or a liberation for Jeeves as he was woken up from a decades-long sleep on a sleepy summer afternoon by a bored Indian teenager? Whatever it must have been, I am sure he would have raised the corner of his lip one-sixteenth of an inch and said: “I am glad to have given satisfaction, sir.”

This is a wonderful read.


4 comments on “The Magic of the Written Word

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