Thursday, June 04, 2015

The Child That Books Built by Francis Spufford

Spufford is a noted English writer and critic, and The Child That Books Built was the story of his young reading life, originally published in 2002 when Spufford was in his early thirties. So he's my close contemporary, and presumably had a similar reading program to mine, since I learned about him through mostly SFnal-adjacent circles. And this book has been highly praised as a guide to what it's like to be a young bookish kid, the nonfictional equivalent of Jo Walton's Among Others.

Perhaps my problem is that I expected to adore it, and only mildly liked it, but I found Spufford too wrapped up in theory and self-psychoanalysis and too little invested in writing about books.

He divides the book into four long chapters, after one more introductory "Confessions of an English Fiction Eater," each one covering one major phase of that young life (from six up to about eighteen) as seen through the lens of one exemplary series or work or genre. "The Forest" is about the books read by or to young children -- mostly left unnamed -- but more about Piaget's theories of child development and various ideas about fairy tales. "The Island" starts out about The Hobbit -- the first book Spufford claims he read, at the age of six, which I find really puzzling, though I believe that he believes it -- and moves on to be mostly about Narnia. "The Town" is about Louisa May Alcott, and about the desire for community. (Though not a community of other people reading the same books, or even different books -- Spufford keeps the reading rigidly separate from the sociology.) And "The Hole" is about adolescence and horror and looking around for something new to read in the same way that one's body is changing into something new. Spufford writes that he floundered around for a while -- trying some classics but not connecting strongly, reading some thrillers but realizing they were too thin for him, consuming prose pornography even as a budding feminist sensibility told him it was Very Bad For Him -- before he dove into classic SF and found the next chapter of his reading life.

Some of that matches what I was reading at similar ages -- though the family lore is that I was reading substantially younger, discovered at Christmas when I was about two and a half, so I had a head start on Spufford. And I didn't re-read much, so I dug more widely -- I was reading from the "adult" section of the library for about eleven or twelve, mostly to get to the SF and mystery sections over on that side of the building. But Spufford, particularly in the earlier chapters, is writing about the reasons he now thinks he liked the books he read then, and focusing quite tightly on a very few books. That doesn't match my experience of a young reader: my experience was of reading a lot, of diving into different things, reading a dozen books, and then deciding I didn't quite like that, but how about this other thing right next to it? To be frank, The Child That Books Built smells too much of the lamp to me: the story of analysis rather than love.

If I wrote a similar book, I'd want to talk about reading Raymond Chandler at thirteen, sitting beside a pool in a Florida summer that I could squint and pretend was LA in the hot '30s. I'd want to admit to reading piles and piles of junky SF and fantasy in the early '80s, Piers Anthony and Jack Chalker and many more -- and to turn and argue that Thieves' World, coming right out of the middle of that milieu, was actually something much stronger and more exciting. I'd want to talk about discovering Gene Wolfe and "The Book of the new Sun," and how I'm sure I still haven't gotten to the bottom of those wondrous books. I'd want to mention Jack Vance and Roger Zelazny and Kurt Vonnegut and the early cyberpunks and boatloads of private-eye novels, Lawrence Block in both noir and funny modes, Donald E. Westlake in ditto, dozens of Hugo and Nebula and Asimov and Silverberg anthologies. I'd probably want to write about books I was forced to read -- discovering the wondrous language of Shakespeare and the joy of saying it out loud from memory, the corny charms of Our Town, the depth and breadth of Huckleberry Finn, how three or four books would be dull misfires and then one would be perfect, the precise right book at the right time, like Trollope's The Warden. I'd have to mention The Science Fiction Book Club, obviously, but because it introduced me to Mikhail Bulgakov and Haruki Murakami. I don't see how I could possibly condense down a decade or more of reading into a few small examples, and hang so much development and thought and reading on barely a dozen books.

Spufford could; Spufford did. We're different people, with different lives and interests. This book may speak to you in a way it didn't to me: the back cover has glowing quotes from people like Penelope Lively and Peter Ackroyd and Kim Stanley Robinson and Sven Birkerts to say it did speak to them. And I love the fact that it's a major, lauded book all about growing up reading: there need to be more books like this. But I couldn't really love this one the way I wanted to.


melita66 said...

Kate Nepveu reported that she and her husband read The Hobbit to their 6-year-old and that it worked well. Maybe Spufford is (mis-)remembering something similar.

Andrew Wheeler said...

melita66: Could be.

I can completely believe that a 6-year-old read The Hobbit, but I have a hard time with Spufford basically saying he learned to read by reading The Hobbit. That seems a bit much.

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