The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading by Frances Spufford
(Metropolitan Books, 2002, 213 pages)
Francis Spufford’s memoir of childhood reading is a classic case of “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” The American edition features a rather sentimental looking illustration of a child in a nursery setting, idyllically gazing at a picture book. The image sets the expectation (at least to my mind) of warm reflections on charming children’s classics. Well, Spufford has some of those, but this is certainly not the overall tone of the book. The first chapter, “Confessions of an English Fiction Eater,” is a play on Thomas De Quincy’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater, and Spufford’s voracious reading bears all the nasty marks of a habit. He describes the way that books served as an escape from a suffocating home life, one which was dominated by the needs of his sister’s debilitating illness. There is no sentimentality in the frustration and lack of sympathy that he expresses for her condition. Books serve as a means of distraction from the claustrophobia of boarding school and ultimately an escape from childhood altogether.
His account begins with his reading of Tolkien’s classic The Hobbit and ends with the erotic novel Emmanuelle. In between, Spufford investigates the psychology of fairy tales, the immersive qualities of C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, and the social ethics of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series. His discussion of Lewis is particularly good. Spufford’s reading of Narnia really captures the capacity of Lewis’ writing to awaken a desire for the supernatural. Lewis’ stories are treated as stories, not as vehicles for ideas (as is so often the case). Lewis’ judgements about what makes for good reading continue to guide Spufford, even as he moves from reading children’s books to porn (the books he describes as “porn” actually sound a bit highbrow, but it goes well beyond romantic memories of childhood nonetheless).
This is a book that delves deep into the ways that reading shapes us psychologically, intellectually, and emotionally. For those who come to reading as simple entertainment, this whole approach might seem a bit overblown. But if, for you, reading is more of a habit to be supplied than a recreation to be taken up or left alone, Spufford’s reading life should resonate deeply.