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The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading

by Francis Spufford

(Metropolitan Books, 224 pp., $23)

Francis Spufford's memoir of a reading childhood opens with a fine description of his seven-year-old self submerging into text:

     My ears closed. ... Deep in the mysterious ductwork
     an adjustment had taken place with the least possible
     actual movement, an adjustment chiefly of pressure.
     There was an airlock in there. It sealed to the outside
     so that it could open to the inside. The silence that fell
     on the noises of people and traffic and dogs allowed an
     inner door to open to the book's data, its script of sound.
     There was a brief stage of transition in between, when
     I'd hear the text's soundtrack poking through the fabric
     of the house's real murmur, like the moment of passage
     on the edge of sleep where your legs jerk as your mind
     switches over from instructing solid limbs to governing
     the phantom body that runs and dances in dreams. Then,
     flat on my front with my chin in my hands or curled in a
     chair like a prawn, I'd be gone.

Memories of our childhood reading experiences tend to have a prelapsarian glow. In the earliest communions with books, there is an almost mystical intensity that some of us spend the rest of our reading lives trying to recapture. Perhaps this is why so many parents are anxious to have their offspring read the same books that they did as children: they wish to pass on the pleasures of The Wind in the Willows or The House at Pooh Corner, but, even more urgently, they want to retrieve something of the dense atmosphere of their childhoods for themselves.

The Child That Books Built goes a long way toward gratifying this impulse. With its precisely rendered invocations of what it is like to discover Tolkien's Middle-Earth or C.S. Lewis's Narnia or Laura Ingalls Wilder's prairie for the first time, this book grants much the same sort of sentimental satisfactions as might be gained from a dark winter's afternoon spent rummaging through an attic. It also offers an intelligent, thoughtful inquiry into how the pleasure of reading actually works.

The standard metaphor for fictional pleasure is one of imaginative transport. Books are doorways to other worlds; they take us away. Yet as Spufford correctly points out, the very first books we read are not required to take us far. Dragons and dryads will come later, but in the beginning cats, laundry, and bath-times are quite heady enough fare. Spufford recalls being "viscerally affected" by the illustrations of ordinary playthings in Shirley Hughes's Lucy and Tom's Day--"the little red and blue train which seemed to be the essence of toy." I, too, can remember being slain, at age four, by a Dick Bruna drawing of a basket of eggs. (Even now, if I concentrate hard enough, I can summon up their devastating charisma.) Perhaps, as Spufford suggests, these stylized representations of everyday phenomena feed some early appetite for the essence or the Ur of things: the toyness of toys, the eggness of eggs. At any rate, even at the picture-book stage, it is possible to detect the first stirrings of desire for what Spufford calls "a fictive life that is stronger in its colours and clearer in its lines than your own unnarrated existence."

With the advent of fairy tales, the child begins traveling into worlds that have no equivalent in his or her real life. But these stories, too, effect a satisfying distillation of reality, not least by reducing the vast and troubling mysteries of personality to a neat taxonomy of good princesses, bad stepmothers, and kings who set tasks for suitors. As Spufford notes, "This vocabulary of types is actually easier to acquire in some ways than knowledge about the child's own world, because the fairy-tale world is so perfectly self-explanatory."

The modern approach to fairy tales is split between two more or less contradictory schools of thought. One, pioneered by Bruno Bettelheim, proposes the fairy tale as a kind of therapeutic workout for a child's unconscious, with the dramatis personae acting as proxies for various warring drives. The other sees the fairy tale as historically determined material that can--and should--be altered to suit changing cultural values. Hence the practice, popular in the 1970s and 1980s, of revising tales to reflect egalitarian and feminist principles, making over every doe-eyed princess as a spunky chick with her eye on graduate school.

I confess that I was rather looking forward to watching Spufford put the boot into the reform brigade, but in his characteristically genial and fair-minded way he insists on giving them their due. Some of their revisions are clumsy and reductive, he admits, but they are right, after all, to be concerned about the inherently prescriptive nature of fairy tales.

     Every description in a fairy story of how
     people behave toward each other, with
     justice or injustice, is faintly, complicatedly,
     an endorsement. The certainty of a story
     that allows a child to add it--with delight--
     to the category of "things that are so" also
     lends to its content the slight implication that
     this is how things ought to be. We cannot be
     told that "Once there was a prince" without
     also being told (on some level and in some
     part) that it was right that there was a prince.
     What knits together out of nothing and yet is
     solid enough to declare that it is so, recommends
     itself to us although we don't receive the
     recommendation straightforwardly. In this lies
     the power, and the danger, of stories.

As an apologia for the would-be Bowdlers, this passage strikes me as faintly shocking. It reminds me of the English literature teachers I encountered at school who thought that the vital thing to do with a Shakespeare play was to draw out its implicit sexisms and racisms. Yes, art is powerful and persuasive. And yes, when we are drawn into a story, it commands our sympathy, however temporarily, for its imaginative vision of the way the world operates. But even the doctrinaire scheme of a fairy tale presents quite a bit of room for the reader's independent maneuver-- a range of forces and characters to consider and, if you want, to "identify with."

Thus my three-year-old daughter likes to play at being Cinderella to my prince. ("We're falling in love!" she yodels as we waltz around the kitchen.) But she also likes to play the wicked stepmother and lock me in the bathroom, shouting "Clean the floors!" with a witchy cackle. I suppose that if Cinderella were the only story she was ever going to read, I might be concerned about its insidious message of anti-republicanism. But her days are filled with stories, each of them offering a different kind of prescription or demanding a different kind of imaginative leap. It is the multiplicity of fictional worlds that guards her from treating any one fiction as a tract. The true antidote for the propaganda power of story is ... more stories. And, of course, lived experience: no child is built entirely out of books, after all.

Yet the idea of reading as a potentially perilous exercise is strangely important to Spufford. It arises again, more forcefully, when he writes directly about his own childhood. Spufford says that, as a young boy, he used books to limit his confrontation with the agonizing vulnerability of his younger sister, who was born with a rare and disastrous disease called cystinosis. He gobbled up books frantically, not so much for their content as for their soothing form--the deployments of story itself.

     When I read stories obsessively as a
     child I was striking a kind of deal that
     allowed me to turn away. Sometime in
     childhood I made a bargain that limited,
     so I thought, the power over me that real
     experience had, the real experience that
     comes to us in act and incident and through
     the proximate, continuous existence of those
     we love. All right, I said, I'll let a quantity of
     that stream over me, if I can have a balancing
     portion of this, the other kind of experience
     which is controlled and repeatable, and comes
     off the page.

Fiction became for him, in other words, a narcotic substance. The very same properties that gave it its potential for revelation--its vividness, its concrete detail, its magical substitution of words for things--were those that allowed it to be consumed as a drug. Even as an adult, Spufford suggests, his book habit--he still reads more or less a book a day--has a slightly pathetic, compulsive aspect. His "sludgey dives into text" are self-induced sessions of oblivion, willed escapes from the complexities of real life.

Generally speaking, the reader is a symbol of virtue in our culture, just as the Nintendo player is a symbol of unwholesomeness. This is why accounts of childhood passion for books tend, even when their tone is ostensibly rueful--what an odd/pale/serious/nerdy child I was!--to have a slightly smug undertone: they are testaments to the author's early and intuitive preference for high culture over mass culture. There is something tonic in Spufford's challenge to this automatic association of reading with high-mindedness. For consuming books is not necessarily a rigorous exercise, of course, and those of us who frantically scan the backs of detergent bottles when there is no other prose at hand know only too well that the intellectual dignity conferred on bookishness is not always earned.

And yet I'm not sure that Spufford ever really succeeds in persuading us that childhood reading is dangerous as such. If I read him correctly, he wants to say that fiction--or at least certain ways of consuming fiction--can act as a hindrance to emotional maturity, by keeping a person from having to engage with the difficult, disappointing, unpredictable stuff of real life. It's not so much that this is not true as that it is true of almost everything. The same can be said about certain ways of having sex, or drinking alcohol, or eating food, or taking exercise. There is very little human pleasure, when it comes down to it, that is not capable of morphing into vice or dysfunction. And as dangerous substances go, Tolkien still seems a better bet for children than video games, or crack.

A good many keen childhood readers make their transition into adult reading by way of the classics. But Spufford claims to have found the intricate investigations of human emotion in Austen and Eliot and Hardy "dry." He opted instead for James Bond and science fiction. In his late teens, he discovered Borges and Calvino. And finally, on the very precipice of adulthood, he found porn: Grove Press paperbacks with titles such as Davina and Beatrice, purporting to be suppressed Victorian classics. Like so much of the fiction that had sustained him throughout his childhood, the attraction of porn seems to have lain in its ability to conjure up life--in this case, women--in predictable, controllable portions.

     I knew that there was a blatant contradiction
     between this brutish thingifying of women and
     my nervous attention to them as individuals in
     real life. But I didn't care. I wanted to be nasty.
     I wanted to transgress again, to go across this
     new line fiction offered me. Now, as well as
     loving books and learning from them, I could
     consummate the relationship by having sex with them.

This constitutes Spufford's bravest attempt to demonstrate how unvirtuous reading can be; but even here, one has to say, he fails to generate much alarm. Indeed, he takes a far dimmer view of his adolescent book list than any of his readers are likely to take. So he wasn't a Janeite: on balance, this is probably a forgivable sin in a teenage boy. (He appears to have acquainted himself subsequently with her oeuvre.) So he whacked off to books that "thingified" women. What to say to this other than that he was not alone? As with all the other confessions in this book, the supposed wrong being confessed is overshadowed by the scrupulousness and the eloquence with which it is confessed. If, as a young man, Spufford was not always as in touch with his emotions as he might have been, he certainly seems to have overcome that defect now. He writes about himself with cogency and insight and charm. And hasn't a lifetime of reading surely contributed more to this achievement than it has hindered it?

It seems unnecessary for Spufford to have framed his enormously interesting memoir as a masculine mea culpa. There are moments in this book that have the slightly nutty, self-flagellating quality of old-style Communist Party "self-criticism" sessions. He needs to relax. The child that books built seems, on the evidence presented here, to have turned into a thoroughly decent man.

Zoe Heller's new novel, Notes on a Scandal, will be published next summer by Henry Holt.

By Zoe Heller