In my nursery school nativity play, the Christmas before I turned five, I was cast as the narrator. My role involved sitting on a set of steps to one side of the stage in Silchester village hall, and reading out, from a primitive autocue – a series of large sheets of white cardboard, the text handwritten on them in thick felt-tip pen – the story of the first Christmas, as my contemporaries performed what I spoke. The most thrilling scene for me had nothing to do with donkeys, inns, stables, babies, shepherds, angels or wise men, but was when ‘there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed’ (not, of course, that we used the Authorised Version). For this, I stamped my way over to the middle of the stage, and declaimed the decree in the person of the Emperor. My costume consisted of a toga, sandals and a laurel wreath, which Imperial get-up I wore throughout the performance. And I was never, and still am not, entirely sure of the extent to which the persons of Caesar and narrator coincided. At any rate, the experience instilled in my childhood self a (not articulated) sense, residual still, that there might be a mystical, if misty, relationship between reading and power.
Francis Spufford, a third of the way into The Child that Books Built, tells the following story:
I learnt to read around my sixth birthday. I was making a dinosaur in school from crepe bandage and toilet rolls when I started to feel as if an invisible pump was inflating my head from the inside. My face became a cluster of bumps on a taut sphere, my feet receded and turned into dangling limpnesses too far away to control. The teacher carried me home on her shoulders. I gripped the dinosaur in one hand. It was still wet with green and purple poster paint. After that things turned delirious. I had mumps . . . When I caught the mumps I couldn’t read; when I went back to school again, I could. The first page of The Hobbit was a thicket of symbols, to be decoded one at a time and joined hesitantly together . . . By the time I reached The Hobbit’s last page, though, writing had softened, and lost the outlines of the printed alphabet, and become a transparent liquid, first viscous and sluggish, like a jelly of meaning, then ever thinner and more mobile, flowing faster and faster until it reached me at the speed of thinking and I could not entirely distinguish the suggestions it was making from my own thoughts. I had undergone the acceleration into the written word that you also experience as a change in the medium.
This is nicely turned – a ‘thicket of symbols’, a ‘jelly of meaning’ – and shows a gift for narrative. The close description of the dinosaur is vivid but not overdone; the onset of delirium is marked by the disappearance of such details from the account. Just for a moment you think the inflating-head feeling is a symptom of learning to read – the mumps are a mini-twist – but the misreading is useful: it prepares the ground for the later transformation that does have to do with learning to read. Elsewhere in the book Spufford distinguishes between people, like himself, who have been committed readers of fiction since early childhood, and people (including ‘friends in the word business – very literary people, people more literary than me’) who ‘only started to read as teenagers, at 14 or 15 or 16’, and have ‘developed almost no appetite, necessarily, for story as such’. Spufford has developed not only an appetite but a talent for it.
The Child that Books Built calls itself a ‘memoir of childhood and reading’, but it’s more a memoir of childhood reading, or childhood as reading. Non-reading childhood is glimpsed only occasionally, when Spufford peers for a moment over the top of the books that built him. When he was three, his younger sister, Bridget, was born. She suffered from cystinosis, a ‘ridiculously rare’ metabolic disorder. Her body was incapable of dealing with waste cystine (an amino acid) which instead accumulated in crystals in her tissues. By the time the cause of her ‘failure to thrive’ was diagnosed in the autumn of 1967, when she was a few months old, Bridget ‘had one kidney already defunct, and the other about to give in’. Great Ormond Street had recently developed a way to keep her alive – just – and by the time she was one, she was ‘well into the routine of existing with a fingertip grasp on the medical precipice’. Francis ‘knew that Bridget’s fragility made the whole world fragile’. Books were a means of escape into more robust realities, offering an ‘experience which is controlled, and repeatable, and comes off the page. I learned to pump up the artificial realities of fiction from page to mind at a pressure that equalised with the pressure of the world, so that (in theory) the moment I actually lived in could never fill me completely, whatever was happening.’ The consistency, in both senses, of Spufford’s metaphors – all that liquid fiction, all those mental hydraulics – is very appealing. As is that nicely placed self-doubting parenthesis.
Any extra-literary biographical details (well, most of them) are included in the book because of the pressure they brought to bear on the Francis Spufford who reveals himself to us here, his public, written persona. Bridget’s illness gave the first shove. Later we learn about the public library in Newcastle-under-Lyme (Spufford’s parents taught at Keele) and journeys there and back on the free bus that ran between the town and the university; about lying in the long grass at the edge of the playground with his friends Richard and Roger, ‘trying to fart at will’; about avoiding Julie, ‘who liked to pounce on innocent-looking kids and ask them the Question – “D’you know what having it off means?”’; about the time Francis ‘crept onto the landing and kissed Aslan’s nose’ on a poster-map of Narnia ‘in experimental adoration – and then fled, quivering with excited shame, because I had brought something into the real world from story’s realm of infinite deniability.’ In the book’s penultimate paragraph, Spufford writes: ‘Bridget died when she was 22 . . . “I’m sick of living at the frontiers of medical knowledge,” she said soon before the end . . . I went off to university, and there I met people whose privacy isn’t mine to dispense with. So the rest is none of your business.’ He has been careful, in these over-confessional times, to tell us only ‘the origins of my life as a reader’.
The Child that Books Built is, for obvious reasons, structured chronologically. After the introductory ‘Confessions of an English Fiction Eater’, we are taken on a journey – wait for it, it’s not as naff as it sounds – from ‘The Forest’ (Chapter 2, ages 0 to 6) via ‘The Island’ (Chapter 3, ages 6 to 11) and ‘The Town’ (Chapter 4, ages 11 to 14) to ‘The Hole’ (Chapter 5, ages 14 to adult). The geographical motifs work surprisingly well, because they’re all properly and intricately developed, and fit snugly with the books they illustrate, and that illustrate them.
‘The Forest’ is richly stocked with fairytales, mythology, history, archaeology, psychology, psychoanalysis, anthropology, philosophy, Russian formalism, a little personal reminiscence, and plenty of wonderful children’s books, including (chosen because I read them too): The Wind in the Willows, The Sword in the Stone, Through the Looking-Glass, Burglar Bill, Alfie Gets in First, Where the Wild Things Are. Piaget’s theories of childhood development are introduced, as are some of the problems with them. We learn that ‘by the time of the Domesday Book in 1086 it would already have been impossible for Hansel and Gretel to walk more than four miles through any English wood in any direction without bursting back out into open fields.’ I like facts like this, and The Child that Books Built is full of them. It also contains an impressive variety of loosely connected arguments, as well as plenty of well-told anecdotes. There is no grand scheme at work, however, no larger central point being made, or at least none that I could discern. And why should there be? There is much of interest here, and the book is a pleasure to read.
Mumps and the model dinosaur begin ‘The Island’, learning to read to oneself being an obvious start to a new phase. The Hobbit leads to other stories set in entirely different worlds – The Lord of the Rings; Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy, in which magical power is held by those who know the true names of things – but also to the ‘books I loved best . . . the ones that started in this world and took you to another’. He credits E. Nesbit with inventing the ‘mixing of the worlds’ in The Story of the Amulet (1906), the third of her novels about Cyril (who for some unaccountable reason Spufford thinks is called Hugh), Anthea, Robert and Jane and their magical adventures. The first is Five Children and It (1902) – the fifth child being their baby brother; ‘It’ being the Psammead, or sand fairy, a creature that looks a bit like a monkey with eyes on stalks, can grant a wish a day and hates getting wet. In The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904), the children discover a flying carpet that can take them anywhere in the world: its daily allowance is three wishes. The Phoenix, like the Psammead, is of an awkward but basically good-natured disposition, and makes up for what the carpet lacks in personality. The amulet in The Story of the Amulet is actually half an amulet, which if reunited with its other half will grant the children their heart’s desire, which is for their parents to come home: their mother is convalescing with the baby on the coast; their father is reporting a war, either in Manchuria or South Africa (his location changes, interestingly and unremarked, as the story progresses). They can travel thanks to the amulet through time and space, and have adventures in Ancient Egypt, Babylon, a utopian London of the future and elsewhere. It’s a shame that Spufford never read John Masefield’s Box of Delights: I think he’d have liked it; and I’d like to read what he might have to say about it.
The Story of the Amulet was number one in a list of the Top Ten Children’s Books of All Time (a silly notion, but appealing nonetheless) that Spufford put together for the Guardian last year; but on ‘The Island’, Aslan is king:
from the moment I first encountered The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to when I was 11 or 12, the seven Chronicles of Narnia represented essence-of-book to me. They were the Platonic Book of which other books were imperfect shadows. For four or five years, I essentially read other books because I could not always be rereading the Narnia books. I had a book-a-day habit to support, and there were only seven of them after all.
This introduces a discussion of the development of C.S. Lewis’s metaphysics: roughly speaking, from an ‘abrasive’ atheism to Christianity, ‘from being someone who thought that Plato was always wrong’ to ‘someone who thought that Plato was almost always right’. ‘The Island’ is the empirical world: should you swim out beyond the breakers, you will transcend sensory experience and discover true ecstasy. Spufford quotes from The Screwtape Letters: ‘Out at sea, out in His sea, there is pleasure, and more pleasure.’ But the time came, when Francis was 11 or 12, that he ‘found that . . . I wanted to linger on the island, not swim out to sea.’ Spufford is alert to what’s irksome in the Narnia stories, and there are plenty of reminders here of other, quite different books: To Kill a Mockingbird; the Swallows and Amazons series; Ian Seraillier’s The Silver Sword, about an orphan in Warsaw during the Second World War; Claude Shannon’s Mathematical Theory of Communication.
Shannon conducted research into the capacity of phone networks on behalf of the Bell Telephone Company in the late 1940s. What he discovered ‘has been fruitful for cryptography, the sciences of chaos, literary theory and the design of the Internet. It can also be applied to a six-year-old reading The Hobbit. Functionally speaking, there is no difference between a phone call one-third obscured by static on the line . . . and a printed page one-third of whose words you don’t know.’ Shannon worked out that a percentage of any message is ‘redundant’, which is to say that a certain amount can be lost without serious detriment to the information contained in it, because of the ways in which the arrangements of signs in comprehensible sign-systems are limited by rules (a very simple example, given by Spufford: in English, q is almost always followed by u; after q, therefore, u is almost always redundant). A statistical analysis of written English showed, remarkably, that it has a redundancy of about 50 per cent; which is why Francis, aged six, was able to enjoy The Hobbit, and to learn to read to himself.
The discussion of Shannon leads on to the phenomenon of words we learned only in their written form, and for which we contrived our own (mis)pronunciation. ‘The classic is “misled”, said not as mis-led but as myzled – the past tense of a verb, “to misle”.’ One of mine is ‘awry’, stressed on the first syllable which is pronounced like the aw in ‘awful’. You can tell it’s an adjective because of that final y, presumably formed from an obsolete Anglo-Saxon noun, awr, the meaning of which is now sadly lost. ‘Such words,’ Spufford writes, ‘demonstrated the autonomy of stories. In stories, words you never heard spoken nonetheless existed . . . in stories, words could command things to be.’
Having decided to stay on ‘The Island’, Francis had to learn how to engage in complicated social interactions with his fellow islanders, to learn how to live in ‘The Town’. The important books here are Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series. Spufford went to De Smets, South Dakota, the little town on the prairie, where he met Harvey Marx, 91, who had been a pallbearer at the funeral, in 1941, of Laura’s youngest sister, Grace: ‘It took me a little time to digest this information, and fit it together with the enclosed world of the stories . . . This was Baby Grace, who had a swan’s-down hood for Christmas! He helped bury Baby Grace!’ There is a small but thriving Little House heritage industry in De Smets, of which you can’t help feeling that Laura Ingalls Wilder would have approved.
Spufford gives a fascinating rereading of The Long Winter, to my mind the most memorable of the Little House books – all that digging tunnels through the snow. He concentrates on it here because it is about not only the little town on the prairie but ‘The Town’: Laura is 14; the Ingallses move into a house on Main Street, off the open prairie, after Pa – Laura’s father – hears an old Indian forecast a harsh winter; and ‘the tactics of the series change to match the family’s new connectedness. You see Laura making friendships with other girls her age, you see Pa, for the first time, alone in the company of other men.’ The whole town has to work together to see them all through till spring. But what makes Spufford’s reading so interesting is its emphasis on the story’s ideological bent.
In 1993, a book called The Ghost in the Little House by William Holtz was published, claiming that a close study of the manuscripts of the novels revealed them to have been ghostwritten by Rose Wilder Lane, not only Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter, but a novelist, too. ‘Holtz’s book,’ Spufford writes, ‘caused outrage.’ It posed a ‘threat to the emotional authenticity of the experience’ of the readers. ‘I know,’ one of the women at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society told Spufford, ‘that if Laura hadn’t written those books she’d have said so’ – a remark that becomes only more bewildering the more you think about it. Studies since Holtz’s bombshell give a more balanced account of a collaboration between mother and daughter, with interesting political as well as literary implications. Ingalls Wilder was an opponent of the New Deal with a firm belief in the self-sufficient values of the frontier. Wilder Lane’s convictions lay considerably further to the right: ‘Her version of the revolutionary nature of American life,’ Spufford says, ‘stripped everything out of it but God, families and the market . . . Which made the Ingalls family’s desperate need for a handout in The Long Winter extremely tricky to negotiate with dignity.’ Almanzo Wilder, Laura’s future husband, and his friend Cap Garland risk their lives to fetch wheat from a farmer twenty miles south of town, without which they would all have starved. The reason Almanzo gives for his heroic behaviour is that the only alternative would be to feed the town his own seed wheat: as Spufford puts it, ‘we are to note that he donates his courage to the community, and not his property.’ Once the wheat arrives safely in town, the storekeeper tries to charge three times what he paid the boys for it. Pa’s solution to the problem is not to protest about the unfairness, but to have the whole town threaten never to shop there again once the thaw comes. Social contracts are bartered in the marketplace.
‘The Hole’ is, in part, the place that children’s fiction won’t reach, a place infested by the fears and anxieties of adolescence. Francis had ‘reached the end of the things that the children’s books I cherished could tell me urgently’. But he wasn’t yet ready for the uncertainties of grown-up fiction. The answer lay, at first, in the James Bond stories, swapped and stolen among the boys at his boarding school. There were other ‘occasional hits’, but his search for a book he wanted to read reminded him of Marie Curie isolating ‘one gleaming gramme of radium’ from ‘tonne after tonne after tonne of black sludge’. Until he discovered science fiction, and then metafiction. There followed a bleak period of frenetic pornography consumption: ‘porn first worked itself (and me) into excited fury by conjuring women’s bodily frontiers. Then it breached them. Farther up and farther in! – as it said in the Narnia books.’ He ‘read as if the fantasies the porn enacted were entirely the authors’ responsibility, and vanished back between the covers when I shut the book, having rid me of something I didn’t want to own’. But eventually he finds that this border is permeable, too: ‘when a fantasy collapses . . . and you find yourself confronting your own wishes undisguised by story, the encounter is not fun; for everything you put into a story, you store in yourself, there being no such thing in inner geography as a truly bottomless hole.’ And then, rather abruptly: ‘That’s about it.’ Francis went off to university, and the rest is none of our business.
Chloe Hooper’s first novel, A Child’s Book of True Crime, shares some of Spufford’s concerns, particularly those of ‘The Hole’: how do you cope when children’s books no longer do the things for you they once did? The narrator, Kate Byrne, is a primary school teacher in Tasmania. She’s having an affair with Thomas Marne, the father of one of her pupils, Lucien, who displays not only signs of great intelligence but a disturbing tendency to draw ultra-violent pictures. Lucien’s mother, Veronica, has recently written a true-crime book called Murder at Black Swan Point, about the killing in 1983 of Ellie Siddell, a young assistant vet, probably by the wife of her lover who later – again only probably – threw herself into the sea from the clifftop. Her body was never found. Kate becomes increasingly obsessed with Ellie’s story, and worried that it is repeating itself in her own life: she has been receiving nuisance calls in the middle of the night; leaving school one day, she sees the words ‘i know’ scratched into her classroom door; the brakes fail on her car, perhaps because someone has tampered with them. Kate reconstructs Ellie’s life in her mind, projecting – we can only assume, given the level of detail – her own personality and experiences onto the murdered girl. The novel is rife with anxiety and uncertainty, which have at their roots Kate’s reluctance to leave childhood behind.
Her narrative is intercut with an account of Ellie Siddell’s murder in the style of a children’s book – a child’s book of true crime – that Kate imagines writing for Lucien, to explain to him in a way he’ll understand not only what his mother has been writing about, but the tangled relationships of his parents and his teacher. These sections don’t altogether work; they’re not really told as children’s stories. A bunch of cutesy Tasmanian animals – Kitty Koala, Terence Tiger, Wally Wombat – discover and try to solve Ellie’s murder. But talking tigers aren’t enough on their own to make a children’s story – which, to give Hooper the benefit of the doubt, may be the point. ‘A child’s book of true crime’ is oxymoronic. The closest approximation to such a thing may, in fact, be Veronica Marne’s Murder at Black Swan Point.
When Spufford ‘ventured out among the modern novels in the adult section of the library’ he ‘was baffled by the protocol that governed most of the books’. Their titles were often wholly unrepresentative of their contents; the authors refused to say ‘who was good, who was bad’. Hence the relief of discovering genre fiction, in one sense children’s books for grown-ups. ‘Genre writers are in the business of delivering sensations for which their readers have already at least half-formed a wish’; their titles give a pretty good indication of what’s inside. Murder at Black Swan Point fulfils these conditions; it also tidies into an unambiguous narrative a series of events the exact nature of which will forever be uncertain. A Child’s Book of True Crime fails to do any of these things, and is all the better for it – and all the more grown-up.