What does it mean that I’ve started re-reading books? Nearly twenty years ago, in 1990 I read Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer by Richard Holmes and loved it and now I’m re-reading it. Amazon describes it like this:
In 1985, Richard Holmes published a small book of essays called Footsteps and the writing of biography was changed forever. A daring mix of travel, biographical sleuthing and personal memoir, it broke all the conventions of the genre and remains one of the most intoxicating, magical works of modern literary exploration ever published. Sleeping rough, he retraces Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous journey through the Cevennes. Caught up in the Parisian riots of the 1960s, he dives back in time to the terrors of Wordsworth and of Mary Wollstonecraft marooned in Revolutionary Paris and then into the strange tortured worlds of Gerard de Nerval. Wandering through Italy, he stalks Shelley and his band of Romantic idealists to Casa Magni on the Gulf of Spezia.
I liked a lot about it: the walking, the immersion in the world of the writer, and the importance of the physical place especially as that place was mostly out of the city. When I finally got to Europe three years later I planned the family trip around following the footsteps of some of my favourite writers: Hardy country, Wuthering Heights, the modest white wooden cross that marks Dylan Thomas’s grave in Walves, Wordsworth’s Lake District, Yeats’ Irish tower, even Eliot’s church from Four Quartets at Little Gidding. It was a great journey, and it’s only now that I really appreciate what part Holmes’ book might have made in its planning.
And it affected me in another way too I realise as I look back at my detailed lists of my reading over the years. From 1990 on, after I read this book, I began to read more non-fiction and see the potential in a kind of writing I’d never really taken seriously. From 1990 on every year I read more non-fiction and less and less fiction.
Below, my daughters and I at Top Withins in Yorkshire, perhaps the inspiration for the house Wuthering Heights for Emily Bronte, from that journey following those footsteps in 1993