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Review: The Child That Books Built By Francis Spufford Essay, Research Paper

Nursery crimes The Child that Books Built: A Memoir of Childhood and Reading Francis Spufford 214pp, Faber Appropriately enough for a book that sets out to explore the problematic relationship between the self and what it reads, Spufford has written a genre-busting text. We hurtle through autobiographical scenes, interpretations of books, an occasional literary biography, a burst of travel writing, and regular sorties into linguistics, psychology, lit crit, psychoanalysis, critical theory and even some civics. One second we’re in Spufford’s dorm while the other 13-year-old chaps breathe and snore some four feet away, and the next we’re piling through Kant, Wittgenstein, Chomsky, Bettelheim, Piaget and the like. In between he takes us on a journey through his reading, from fairy tales to such books as Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are , Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings , C S Lewis’s Narnia books, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series, and on to Ian Fleming, sci-fi and porn. Spufford casts himself as a pathological obsessive born out of a family tragedy. Throughout the book, his sister Bridget hovers on the edge of death from a genetic disorder, until she finally goes, aged 22, saying, “I’m sick of living at the frontiers of medical knowledge.” Looking back, Spufford writes, “However strongly I pledged my allegiance to the family, some terrible counter-truth of rage and rejection was pooled inside me.” His mother and father were academics who plunged themselves headlong into the massively time- and energy-gobbling task of trying to keep Bridget alive. Aged 13, young Francis was dispatched to boarding school, and though he never says as much, this couldn’t have helped with that rage and rejection. Early on, before we can measure what level of irony Spufford operates on, he tells us that ever since Bridget, he has “hated vulnerable people”. So, he seems to be warning us, he’s no chip off the Matthew Arnold block; none of that humanising, civilising fandango here. All this is a refreshing contrast with that strangely anonymous critical voice that anyone studying literature is taught to imitate. Here, surely, is what theorists from the reader-response school have always asked for: reading in personal context, reading with the self. Well, yes and no. Spufford wants us to feel in our bones his pleasure in and desire for story. He relates his teenage longings for the female objects of porn back to his yearnings to be in Narnia, on the Prairie, or in the Grimms’ forests. Strangely, neither mother’s breast nor Roland Barthes puts in an appearance, though Jung does. Mythic archetypes hover over the book. Its chapters are, in developmental order: “The Forest”, “The Island”, “The Town” and “The Hole”. To paraphrase, the Forest is Spufford’s world of the unknown (eg fairy stories), the Island is another world (eg Middle Earth), the Town is the place where we learn about society (eg Ingalls Wilder’s frontier township) and the Hole is a place where we lose ourselves in some kind of self-destroying desire (eg porn). I’m not sure how seriously we are meant to take all this. Plenty of Spufford’s examples stray from the archetype, and the archetypes themselves aren’t exactly watertight. After all, you could say that a Little House on the Prairie book takes you into a “forest”, to an “island” and to a “town”. I suspect that there’s another agenda here. Not content with a psychoanalytic rereading of his life story and the stories in his life, Spufford tries to find a route out of the Freudian forest into something of social significance. Tellingly, when talking of Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye , he exposes the paradox of imagining that one is the lone reader walking the “solitary paths” of Caulfield’s thoughts along with millions of other teenage readers. There’s also the fascinating tale of the problematic authorship of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. It seems that Laura’s educated daughter, Rose, had a decisive hand in them. This was no innocent helping-ma thing. Spufford beautifully lays out the way history was doctored to serve an ideological purpose: combating Roosevelt’s New Deal philosophy with pioneer-spirit self-helpism. Here he shows us that books cannot easily disguise their social origins. And yet, by taking the Freudian Bettelheim approach to fairy tales earlier in the book, Spufford overlooks the fact that a tale such as Hansel and Gretel is shot through with ques tions of poverty and survival. What’s more, we read as social animals; as players within, in Spufford’s case, a particular national literate elite. In the 20 pages he spends looking at C S Lewis and Narnia, he doesn’t remind us of just how contiguous his own milieu is with Lewis’s. Instead, Spufford presents himself as a reader mostly untouched by what parents, teachers, friends or sister have to say about books. Their presence is only felt as part of the psychodrama: the reason that he reads, he says, is “to evade guilt”. Spufford has made a great contribution in showing us how he finds himself in the book. It’s a pity he didn’t show us more about how he found his way there. Michael Rosen’s books for children include We’re Going on a Bear Hunt (Walker Books).


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