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.Other Opinions:
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.
(Let me know if I missed yours.)