Apr 3, 2009

The Child that Books Built by Francis Spufford

The books you read as a child brought you sights you hadn’t seen yourself, scents you hadn’t smelled, sounds you hadn’t heard. They introduced you to people you hadn’t met, and helped you to sample ways of being that would never have occurred to you. And the result was, if not an “intellectual and rational being”, then someone who was enriched by the knowledge that their own particular life only occupied one little space in a much bigger world of possibilities.
In The Child that Books Built, Francis Spufford chronicles his reading life: the journey begins when at age six he learned to read with The Hobbit, and it takes us through a childhood spent with fairy tales, Narnia, Earthsea, Greek mythology and the Little House on the Prairie books, to his teen years, when he entered the world of adult literature via science fiction.

I first heard of this book through Nick Hornby, who picked it for his Writer’s Table at Waterstone's. From what he said there, I would have expected the book to be a lot more personal than it actually is. Fortunately, Jenny had warned me that it got quite a bit academic at times. In some ways, The Child that Books Build is a reading memoir, but Spufford also draws from development psychology, linguistics and philosophy and mixes this information with his more personal insights. Perhaps because I was expecting it, I quite liked his approach.

Spufford’s personal story is a sad one: when he was three, his sister Bridget was born. Only a few months after her birth, she was diagnosed with a very rare genetic disease, which was expected to kill her before the end of her childhood. Her whole life was a battle against time, as nobody knew if the next medical breakthrough would come in time for her. Francis Spufford connects the sense of fragility that his sister’s situation made him feel with the fact that he constantly sought refuge in books.

As for the academic bits, they were interesting, except for the fact that there’s entirely too much of Bruno Bettelheim for my taste. But I have to be honest: my ideal amount of Bruno Bettelheim in any book is zero, and only because a negative amount is sadly not possible. And to be fair to Spufford, he does call shenanigans when shenanigans need to be called. This comment on “Bluebeard” is a good example of why Mr. Bettelheim and I would not have been friends:
Leaping past the issue of who did what to whom in the chamber, and taking it as a symbol of forbidden knowledge in a general, sexual sense, he interpreted Bluebeard as a story about a woman’s infidelity and –twisting time strangely—her husband’s anger over it. Bettelheim’s moral: “Women, don’t give in to your sexual curiosity; men, don’t permit yourself to be carried away by your anger at being sexually betrayed.”
From chapter two onwards, each of the book’s sections corresponds to one of Spufford’s reading phases, so to speak, and particular attention is paid to a certain book or series. He writes about the Narnia books, with which he was obsessed as a child, at great length. I read this section with regret – arriving to Narnia at nineteen, I was never able to experience the magic. He talks about Narnia with an appreciation I wish I could feel myself, but he does say something which touches on why I was never able to enjoy the books:
The seductive voice of the stories is also a bully, pushing you into feeling, overwhelming resistance with strong words. I was a very willing reader, but if someone had said this to me when I was eight or nine, I would instantly have known what they meant.
In Narnia, the narrator’s voice is impossible to ignore, and while that draws a lot of readers in, I always felt that it shut me out. I remember talking to Susan last year about a similar kind of narrator’s voice: the found we find in E. Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle. While I liked it, felt welcomed by it, immediately felt at home in the story because of it, Susan couldn’t stand it. And I could sympathize, because that’s how Narnia always made me feel. Reading the books, I felt like a clandestine visitor: I expected that the owner of the voice would drag me out if he were to discover me. I felt unwanted – in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Eustace’s parents are mocked, and their son is just barely saved from the corruption they have caused. I am Eustace’s parents. How could I not feel clandestine? And this is something that makes me sad.

Anyway. I could tell you a lot more, but this is long enough as it is. Two final things. First, this book made me want to read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books, which for some reason I had never thought of reading. Secondly, at one point he says this about Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness:
...this story, compared to most SF, returned me to emotional reality too, where actions had consequences that mattered, and situations were not as flimsy as thoughts, to be crumpled up and replaced by another if they displeased you. But the emotions in question were of a kind that needed SF’s freedom to invent, in order for them to exist: SF’s power to stipulate a whole worldful of possibilities, this time governing not just the flashy stuff, but the subtle logic gates controlling emotional cause and effect.
I’m not all that sure about that “most”, but yes. This goes for fantasy also, and it’s one of the main reasons why I love it. The emotions are human, always human, but they depart from imaginary situations, without which they couldn’t quite exist. Not in the same way. The question, for me, has always been, “How would we feel if”?

More favourite passages:
The stories that mean most to us join the process by which we come to be securely our own. Literacy allows access to a huge force for development. When an adult in a remote village rejoices that ABC has been mastered, it isn’t just because books bring the world to them; books bring them, in new ways, to themselves.

With real forests or without them, we tell the story regardless, knowing that when the los children recede through deep after deep of the trees, they are plumbing a different geography. They are journeying into the deep spaces of myth, which does not demand a location, only a vivid referent—a tree line imprinted onto the imagination.

Remote from our immediate experience fairy stories may be, but they can’t be remote from our fears and desires, or we would find no urgency in them. ‘Only those voices from without are effective,’ wrote the critic Kenneth Burke in 1950, ‘which speak in the language of a voice within.’

Or longing. My favourite books were the ones that took books’ implicit status as other worlds, and acted on it literally, making the window of writing a window into imaginary countries. I didn’t just want to see in books what I saw anyway in the world around me, even if it was perceived and understood and articulated from angles I would never achieve; I wanted to see things I never saw in life.
Other Opinions:
Jenny’s Books
Libri Touches

(Let me know if I missed yours.)


  1. This book sounds fascinating, but I don't think I'd like the academic parts either.

  2. I feel bad that I have not read any of the books mentioned in the book, that could be because I never read when I was young, that is soemthing that I will always regret. Nice review Nymeth, but I think I will skip this one, it will only make be feel worse...

  3. Lovely review. This books sounds fascinating!

  4. I find your reaction to the Narnia books so interesting. I thought they were so universally loved. And sometimes it is that perception that keeps me from reading something. I know it's silly, but I'm much more likely to read something once I've been "given permission" to not like it. Like I said, I know that's silly. I don't need anyone's permission, obviously, nor does anyone actually give it. And nine times out of ten, I will love a book that everyone else adores. But when I don't, I always tend to doubt the legitimacy of my feelings...like I somehow missed something. Anyway, you've now sort of opened up the door to me reading Narnia, something I've been telling myself I need to do for eons, but that when it comes right down to it, I put it off.

    Oh, and if you should for some reason not enjoy the Little House books, well, you won't be alone. I tried to read them as a child (and in fact still have my ancient copies of them), but just could never get into them. Thought I'd try again as an adult, by reading them to Annie when she was younger. I still didn't like them. She was never thrilled either, so we finally gave up and moved on.

  5. This has been on my TBR for quite sometime but never touched it yet because I've also read somewhere (way before I read blogs so I don't know where I read it) about it being a little too academic.

    That's an interesting viewpoint on Narnia. I completely and wholly loved the series, and if I had to choose just one series to have my kids read, that is it, so it's quite eye-opening to see your take on it.

  6. I love books about children's books and childhood reading! This one goes on the list. Thanks, Nymeth!

  7. I read half of this book last year but it seems to have languished in my partially read pile since then, though it often migrates to my bedside table book collection, waiting in anticipation! I loved his descriptions of how absorbed he was by the Narnia books, I was lucky enough to have been given the set at a young age.

  8. Two comments - first, I've never heard of Bettelheim. From that little clip you gave, I was quite turned off though.

    Second, I feel the same way about Narnia. I wasn't introduced to the books until I was about 16 or 17, in a creative writing class in high school where the teacher read a chapter or two out loud to us every day in the same voice one might use for a 2nd grader. I was so so irritated. I've never bothered to read any of the other books or watch the movies. It doesn't help that there's a lot of human and talking-animal interaction, and since I dont' get along with animals well, I generally don't like books with animals-as-humanlike-characters.

  9. I don't think I'd like Mr. Bettelheim either.

    This does like an interesting book. Thank you, too, for sharing some of your favorite passages. I especially like the one about fairy stories and remote experience.

  10. I set myself a little personal challenge to reread the House on the Prairie books this year. I have just got The House in the Big Wood out of the library to read. I loved them as a child and would definitely recommend them.

  11. Sounds interesting. Probably not on my TBR list though. I would rather read the straight memoir, or staight academic book, not a mix.

    Nice review though!!

  12. Great review! I'm glad you enjoyed it - it occurred to me a while after I read it that the author conceals himself to a greater extent than I'm used to, with memoirs. You come away from the book knowing very little about HIM. And actually, I think the book could have been improved - could have been more the book the title makes it sound like - if he had said more about his own life.

  13. Sounds kind of interesting. I don't know if I would want to own it, though, and my library doesn't have it! Oh, well.. Not like I don't have a million other books to read!

  14. Sounds neat! I know what you mean about the Narnia books. As a child, I absolutely adored those books, but when I reread them now, they've lost a lot of their magic. They still bring me back to my childhood, which is special, but knowing what I know now, they've lost some of their magic...and they can annoy me a little bit at times :p But I still love them.

  15. I think I would like this book, even if it is somewhat academic and not totally personal. I was really hooked by the quotes you provided in your review. Thanks for posting this, I may not have heard about it elsewhere.

  16. Now I'm gonna have to read it to see what he read. It's impressive that he read The Hobbit at age 6.

    I wasn't a big Narnia fan either, and I think I know why now. The narrator WAS pushy!

  17. Great review,and a fascinating-sounding book.
    I loved Narnia, and The Enchanted Castle and, for good measure, the Little House books ...

  18. I fell out of love with Narnia as well. It just wasn't as inviting as some of the other books I was reading.

    This sounds like an interesting book. It worries me a little about the academic stuff - I don't know that I'd like that but I may give it a shot! :)

  19. Bermudaonion: They were interesting, I thought. But not everyone's cup of tea.

    Violet: No need to feel bad! I didn't read a single one of these books when I was a child..it was all in my late teens/early twenties. And anyway, it's never too late.

    Wordlily, thank you!

    Debi: You don't sound silly. You really don't. The Narnia books are loved, and I can see why, but I know I'm not the only naysayer :P Though for a while I thought I was. I have been accused of being prejudiced for not liking the books, but the truth is that I like plenty of other things written by Christians and from a distinctively Christian perspective. So I don't think that's it. And the sexism, for example, bothers me a lot more than the whole allegory thing. Thanks for telling me about the Little House books...if I happen not to like them I won't feel all alone :P

    Claire: I really didn't think it was too academic, though I tend to be a fan of more personal approaches. But for me, the mix worked. About Narnia, I truly wish I could like them. You don't mean eye-opening as in "a-ha! I know see what a horrible person you are", right? :P

    Jenclair, I think you'd enjoy it!

    Mariel: I loved those descriptions too. I wish I could have experienced that!

    Amanda: I guess Bettelheim has his merits, to be fair. His book The Uses of Enchantment is all about how fairy tales are emotionally relevant for children because the imaginary scenarios allow them to deal with emotions that feel unsafe. Which, in principle, I don't disagree with...but I don't think it only goes for children, actually, and his interpretations of what each fairy tale "means" are too rigid and authoritative for me. And too psychoanalyst (I'm not a fan of team Freud). Not to mention sexist.

    Literary Feline: Not everything he says is that bad, but there's too much that irks me for me to be able to like him. And yes, the fairy tales bit is a lovely one!

    Madeleine: I like it a lot too :)

    Lou: Thanks for letting us know what's up with you! Best of luck with your thesis, and don't worry, we'll be right here when you're finished :)

  20. Scrap Girl: I'll definitely give them a try!

    Stephanie: You know, I wouldn't have thought I'd like a mix either, but in this case it worked for me.

    Jenny: I really agree - unlike with most memoirs, by the end I really didn't feel I knew him very well at all. But knowing beforehand it was going to be like this was part of why I enjoyed it so much regardless, I think. So I have you to thank!

    Kailana: lol! Indeed :P No danger that you'll run out of books any time soon.

    Chris: I really do wish I'd read them as a child. I think the things we like when we're little always have a hold on us. Have you heard of Laura Miller's The Magician's Book? It's all about how her perception of Narnia changed as she grew up. Neil said good things about it, and so did several bloggers. It's definitely one I'd like to read sometime.

    Zibilee: I hope you enjoy it! I marked even more passages than the ones I shared here.

    Chartroose: He talks about how he didn't understand many of the words in The Hobbit and then goes on about communication theories that say that even if the signal to noise ratio is 50/50 you can still understand the message, so he'd be able to follow the story even if he only understood every other word...it's awesome in a nerdy sort of way :P

    Maree: I wish I loved Narnia :( But hopefully I'll like the Little House books!

    Lena: It's really not too much. I think you'd enjoy it :)

  21. another interesting book review nymeth :)
    wow, he read the hobbit at age 6?!

  22. I found myself being quite intrigued by your thoughts around Narnia and how you and Susan felt entirely different while reading The Enchanted Castle. I have only read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I have never felt pulled towards that series..not sure why. but I have read all of the Little House books twice. Once as a child and then again as an adult. My favorite is Farmer Boy. I could see myself being friends with Almanzo. I'm not sure that I would enjoy this book only because of the academic aspect of it. I honestly don't find that very interesting. Another excellent post Nymeth!!

  23. Hobbit at the age of 6??? I'm ashamed of myself. LOL. Great post as usual. I'm not sure if this is somthing that I'd read though...

  24. Truthfully, this book sounds pretty good to me, like the kind of thing I'd enjoy reading over a long while. Of course I love anything that champions literacy and the importance of books.

    I never read Narnia for myself, but my mom read them to us when we were little. I don't actually have the desire to go back and read them, but I do appreciate what they mean to a lot of people I love and respect. I do like a lot of other stuff C.S. Lewis wrote, like The Great Divorce and Out of the Silent Planet. And his non-fiction stuff always makes me think.

    Little House books are so core to my reading identity that I probably can't really comment on them. But it has been so much fun to watch my nieces grow up loving them and imagining a distant time and place through them as well. Like a shared sisterhood of women readers. :)

  25. I think I would like this book, even if parts are too academic. It's sad to me that you don't care for the Narnia books- as those are ones I read again and again as a child, and still manage to enjoy when I pick them up once more. But there's lots of other childhood favorites that have suffered from rereading, and ones others love that I can't stand, having not been exposed to them at the right age (so I think).

  26. Nymeth - You've done it again. Another marvelous review. Somehow I missed this one so I am adding it to my list.

    As for Bettelheim, he was a Freudian, sexist and falsified some of his credentials, but he did do some of the first research on autism, even if his theory has been discredited. I happen to agree with his take on fairytales and children's imaginations.

  27. This sounds fascinating. As a child I only read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but none of the other books, and hearing your reaction to them I wonder if they're something I could even pick up now. I did, however, read every single Little House book, all of them, over and over again. I would love to read them again now, as an adult.

  28. I adored the Narnia books as a child, devoured them. I've not read them as an adult and perhaps I should as I suspect my reactions would now be different. I seem to recall an excellent short story in one of the Neil Gaiman anthologies about 'what happened to Susan' that really made me sit up and think.

    I too wish I'd read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books as a child. I've no idea why I didn't. I read the first one last year and thought it was delightful but your reaction to books as an adult is just not the same as when you're young.

  29. I guess you probably got to know Bruno Bettelheim pretty well in your psychology studies. I admit I had to look him up on wikipedia! Kind of sounds like my thoughts on Harold Bloom--such a prevalent literary critic but not my favorite.

    Sounds like an interesting book, but I'm not sure it is one I'll be seeking out. Oh--and I've heard great things about Little House on the Prairie, but I've never read it either.

  30. Oh I love your opening paragraph! Sounds like my kind of book. I'll have to keep what you've said in mind the next time I read something with a narrator that I don't enjoy. Narnia and The Enchanted Castle were, to me (forgive the word) enchanting. I've never read Little House on the Prairie books either but I'd really like to one day!

  31. I have wanted to read this book for ages now! It's back on my to get list, which means very shortly a point for you!!! Really good review, Nymeth, and i will keep in mind that it is slightly academic, and filled with Bruno, who it looks like I'm not going to get a along with either, if that quote is anything to go by.

    I like how you bring in your experience of reading Narnia as an adult - I discovered it as a child, so it never occurred to me to feel left out. I was always there in the books, and I desperately wanted to find a wardrobe so I could get there too!! lol I like how you bring in our reactions to E Nesbit too with this - very interesting to see various reactions to books, and the ages we read them at.

    Good review, Nymeth!

    and there's an email waiting for you about Silver on the Tree!! :-D

  32. PS I grew up on LIttle House on the Prairies too series and I loved it. I wonder if we should do a post on books read as a child vs children's books come to as an adult? Is there a difference?

  33. Oh, I think I should be re-reading this one day soon. :)

  34. Naida: Pretty impressive, isn't it?

    Staci: It sounds like I really need to get my hands on the Little House books. As for Lewis and Nesbit, that kind of very. palpable narrator can go both ways, I guess. Sometimes they make readers feel welcomed, other times the effect is the opposite. And it depends on the reader probably more than on the author.

    Alice: I read it at 18 myself, so don't feel bad :P It was also my first "real" fantasy book. It's never too late :P

    Amy: Yes! I love anything that champions literacy too. I've never read anything by Lewis other than Narnia, but I have my eye on Until We Have Faces...it's a retelling of Cupid and Psyche, and that's probably my favourite myth. A sisterhood of women readers - I love that :)

    Jeane: It's really not over the top with the academic information..especially because the book is very short (200 pages), so it never gets to be too much. There are many children's books I read for the first time as an adult and loved, but for others I really do think I missed my window. It makes me sad.

    Gavin, I really think you'd enjoy this! One of my main problems with Bettelheim is exactly his "refrigerator mother" autism theory. Sadly the idea that mothers - women - cause autism due to their "emotional frigidity" is still accepted by many, even if in medical circles it has been completely discredited. And I can't even begin to imagine the amount of grief and guilt it has caused. I know that wasn't his intention, but still, it happened. I have a lot problems with psychoanalysis as a whole that have to do with their research methodology, with the ease with which they make authoritative claims that simply aren't testable. I could go on about this for ages, as you can tell, so I'd better shut up now :P But yes, I definitely do agree that fairy tales are emotionally relevant, even if I don't agree with Bettelheim's interpretations of the stories individually.

    Priscilla: There are adults who still love Narnia, so you might give it a try sometime. The Little House books have gone on The List :)

    Cath: Yes, The Problem of Susan - very controversial story. There's a book called The Magician's Book, which Neil Gaiman has recommended, that is all about the author's changing reaction to the books as she grew up. I'd love to read it sometime. And sadly that's often true - everything seems bigger and deeper and more real when you're a child, and it can be hard to recapture that magic.

    Trish: I actually heard of Bettelheim much more often in literature than I did in psychology. In psychology he's been discredited for the most part, but if you try to do any academic work on fairy tales, he seems impossible to avoid. It drives me nuts :P I like the Harold Bloom comparison. Another one I'm not at all a fan of :P

    Ladytink: I found The Enchanted Castle, well, enchanting too :P I wish I could have felt the same about Narnia. And I'm glad you like the opening paragraph :D

    Susan, I hope you enjoy this as much as I did! It's actually not filled with Bruno...he's only mentioned a handful of times, but I'm Bruno-intolerant, so anything is enough to cause me to have an allergic reaction :P I'd love to see a post on that, btw! And that seems to go nicely with this week's Weekly Geeks theme. You should join in!

    Marineko, I hope you enjoy it the second time around :)

  35. Uhhh I'm not familiar with this Bruno Bettelheim guy, but I must say after reading that quote I'm happy I haven't read more by him...

    As for Narnia, I was enchanted by it at 10, by the whole idea of a wardrobe as a portal to another magic world, where children can be kings and queens. I cried when Aslan died, and read it more than once.
    But when I went back to it in my 20s I realised the magic doesn't live up to adulthood. Too many religious references, sexist remarks and symbols. I was a bit disappointed tbh.

    Love the other quotes!

  36. I love your comments on Bruno Bettelheim :) Growing up I loved the Naria books and the cartoon film as well as the TV adaptation. Reading them again as an adult is such a different experience, but it does bring back happy memories. I still maintain that The Magician's Nephew is sadly overlooked every time. This does sound like an interesting read and your post got me thinking about my childgood reading and my reading patterns.

  37. This book sounds really interesting. The 'academic' label doesn't bother me at all. I can get into some very scholarly books sometimes. Thanks for the review because I had not heard of this book.

  38. I remember reading about this one awhile back and really wanted to pick it up. Shame on me for not doing so. I don't mind that it gets academic because it sounds fascinating. On the list it goes!!!

  39. Valentina: I suspect there's a lot about him you wouldn't like, merits aside :P It's always so disappointing to return to a childhood favourite only to find out it's just not the same anymore!

    Rhinoa: I read them in the "new" order (which I know some people dislike), and the Magician's Nephew was my first. It's been a while, but I don't think I disliked it overall :P

    Rebecca: The scholarly bits are interesting, especially when he talks about how one learns to read...that might have been my favourite part.

    Carl, I think you'll enjoy it :)


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