How to be a Heroine (or What I Learned from Reading Too Much) by Samantha Ellis

I was smitten as soon as I saw the title, but when I saw the cover ….. Well, a pile of books is always a good thing and this one was close to perfect. Eight books, and I could tell you about each one, and of memories that each one held for me.

20521177But this is Samantha Ellis’s story, filtered through the stories of the heroines she met in the books she read, and her musings on how they left their mark on her when they first met and when they met again as this book took shape.

I learned that she was a playwright, the child of a family that had come together from Jewish and Iraqi background, a young woman who had not quite followed the path set out for her and had taken some time to find her own. She told that story with with, with just the right balance of self-awareness and self-deprecation, but really it was the books that were the thing.

I met a woman and though we didn’t have too much on common we bonded over books. We agreed about many – though not all – of them, she made me see a few books and a few of their heroines in a different light, and I wondered if I might have done the same if I could have only spoken back to this book. Oh the dialogue we might have had!

This is a long way from literary criticism. It’s talking about books to other readers, those readers who respond emotionally to book, form relationships with character, want to go and live in different worlds, and want other people to understand that. It’s conversational, it’s passionate, it’s funny, and it has a great line in one-liners.

“I can’t quite believe that I was so keen on a story about a mermaid who gives up her voice for legs to get a man.”

That was ‘The Little Mermaid’ and after that we moved swiftly on to Jo March and Anne Shirley; love for the heroines but rather less for some of the worlds they were placed in and the paths they were sent along helped me to clarify why I wasn’t as drawn to re-read certain childhood favourites as much as I thought I should be.

and when it came to the latter I think that maybe we did.  far more than I can mention here. But I must mention some.

Lolly Willowes!

Jane Eyre!

Mildred Lathbury!

Anna Karenina!

Lucy Honeychurch!

So many wonderful books and so may lovely heroines, to remember, to re-consider, and maybe to pull off the shelf to re-read.

Chapters about Franny and Zooey and The Bell Jar nearly lost me, because they were books that didn’t speak to me, but I was pulled back by books that may not be great literature but do have something to say – Lace and the Valley of the Dolls! Swiftly followed by Flora Poste and Scherezade. That was where the book started to feel a tiny bit forced, as if the ‘right books’ rather than the ‘favourite books’ were coming off the shelf.

And so this isn’t the perfect book about books – there were times before that when I couldn’t help feeling that two much meaning was being squeezed from certain heroine or a certain book.

But ‘How to be a Heroine’ is a very human book, and I loved it for that. It was a book to have a dialogue with, a book that made me appreciate books it talked about, and a book that made me think about other books that I might have included. And a book to love for its hear, its soul, and its bookishness.


Through the Magic Door by Arthur Conan Doyle

An invitation to take a tour of the bookshelves of Arthur Conan Doyle was an invitation not to be refused, and I was smitten from the first.

188817398X_01__SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_“I care not how humble your bookshelf may be, nor how lowly the room which it adorns. Close the door of that room behind you, shut off with it all the cares of the outer world, plunge back into the soothing company of the great dead, and then you are through the magic portal into that fair land whither worry and vexation can follow you no more. You have left all that is vulgar and all that is sordid behind you. There stand your noble, silent comrades, waiting in their ranks. Pass your eye down their files. Choose your man. And then you have but to hold up your hand to him and away you go together into dreamland. Surely there would be something eerie about a line of books were it not that familiarity has deadened our sense of it. Each is a mummified soul embalmed in cere-cloth and natron of leather and printer’s ink. Each cover of a true book enfolds the concentrated essence of a man. The personalities of the writers have faded into the thinnest shadows, as their bodies into impalpable dust, yet here are their very spirits at your command.”

I was in the company of a man who loved his books as much as I love mine. His tastes and mine were fairly different – and of course I have the advantage of choosing from an extra century of books –  but he conveyed his love for every book and author he wrote about wonderfully well.

I’ve been inspired by inspired by his words about Scott, Zola and Meredith,  I loved reading about his great interest in the Napoleonic War, and I appreciated his words about my native Cornwall:

“There is something wonderful, I think, about that land of Cornwall. That long peninsula extending out into the ocean has caught all sorts of strange floating things, and has held  them there in isolation until they have woven themselves into the texture of the Cornish race. What is this strange strain which lurks down yonder ….. ?

That’s not to say that I want to read them all . I don’t think that authors like Carlyle, Boswell and Sterne will spreak to me, but I understand now that they will speak to others.

Although this is a short book I took a while to read it, because it was book after book after book, author after author after author. And its a very masculine book with only fleeting mentions of women who wrote.

But what has stayed with me since I finished reading is a picture of a man who loved reading, and who wanted to read and build a collection of the very best books:

“It is a great thing to start life with a small number of really good books which are your very own. You may not appreciate them at first. You may pine for your novel of crude and unadulterated adventure. You may, and will, give it the preference when you can. But the dull days come, and the rainy days come, and always you are driven to fill up the chinks of your reading with the worthy books which wait so patiently for your notice. And then suddenly, on a day which marks an epoch in your life, you understand the difference. You see, like a flash, how the one stands for nothing, and the other for literature. From that day onwards you may return to your crudities, but at least you do so with some standard of comparison in your mind. You can never be the same as you were before. Then gradually the good thing becomes more dear to you; it builds itself up with your growing mind; it becomes a part of your better self, and so, at last, you can look, as I do now, at the old covers and love them for all that they have meant in the past.”

Reading sentiments like that, and reading such eloquent declarations of love for the written word was a joy.