Francis Spufford has featured on my “Must Read” list since his debut novel, the historical “Golden Hill” took a Costa Award in 2016. For some reason I still haven’t got around to it, although I am convinced I’d enjoy it very much indeed. On the New Non-Fiction shelf at the library I discovered this with its by-line of “What would you find if you went back and re-read your favourite books from childhood?” Still slightly reeling from the sheer joy of Lucy Mangan’s trawl through the books in her past in “Bookworm” I thought this couldn’t be delayed until I got round to Spufford’s novel. I was intrigued and couldn’t wait to read it.
I wasn’t that far through it when I realised it didn’t feel as up to date as I was expecting a book sat on the New Non-Fiction shelf to be. After a little research (turning to the front of the book) I discovered that this was first published by Faber back in 2002 with 2018 being the date this paperback edition (made to look like “Golden Hill”) arrived. So the image I had in my head of both Spufford and Mangan revisiting their childhood concurrently was a bit out of synch as he did this sixteen years ago. Then I sensed a whiff of a cash-in. This has obviously been republished because of the success of “Golden Hill” and probably “Bookworm” too.
The back cover is a tad misleading. It had led me to think we would be in Mangan territory but with a slighter older male perspective. It is considerably more complex than this. Spufford is revisiting his childhood to see how his reading choices impacted upon him and how it formed him developmentally. He is much more interested in the person rather than the books. They are important for their impression they left giving it a stronger psychological basis and feel which basically I enjoyed much less than Mangan’s “joy of reading” approach.
Spufford did use books to escape (family ill-health mainly) but seems to have read with a fury which at times I felt a little unsettling and that I was being intrusive. He was, despite being virtually the same age, a very different child from me anyway. The first book he read alone, aged 6, confined to home because of mumps was “The Hobbit” a book I grappled with probably five years later (which looking back I still feel was too young). From here we get the stages of his development through Narnia (which he, like most children of our generation was obsessed by, although for me it was largely just “The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe”). Naturally, we did have many books in common and I was pleased to recall “Marianne Dreams” by Catherine Storr which has largely edged back into the mists of history but had a lasting effect on both of us (ie: it was terrifying!). Spufford exhausted much of what children’s literature had to offer before finding Sci-Fi which filled that transition period (never really did it for me) to Ian Fleming (whilst at boarding school) and perhaps inevitably on to porn at the end of his teenage years.
His focus is very much on development. Good old Jean Piaget is referenced often (taking me back to my Theory of Education days) and Spufford opts to see these developments in physical terms (forest, island, town, hole). I didn’t follow all of his arguments, in fact it did often remind me of what he pinpoints as one of the memorable stages of learning to function as an independent reader when you pick out what you can as you go along to get the general gist. (Spufford perceptively says we do this in early years and then again when we discover classic novels. Well, I found myself doing this quite often here!)
Where this is strongest is when he lets the books take centre stage. There’s a good section on Laura Ingalls Wilder where I felt totally involved, for example. I would have liked a list of the books he revisited to really get those nostalgic juices flowing. I think I’m being largely niggly because this book wasn’t quite what I thought it was going to be and so there was an underlying disappointment throughout. At one point I was concerned that it might put me off reading “Golden Hill” but I think, having now finished this, that desire is still intact.
The Child That Books Built was published by Faber & Faber in 2002. I read the 2018 paperback version.