The Child that Books Built by Francis Spufford

Oh, those book hangovers! After the second Nabokov, I really didn’t think I was in the mood for any more fiction (I’m reviewing a little out of order here); and I came across this book while rummaging on the shelves and seeing if there was anything I could take to the charity shops. It’s a book about books (well, mostly…) so I thought it might be the ideal solution.

child books built

Francis Spufford is an author I’ve read before; pre-blog, I devoured and loved his book “Red Plenty”, a mixture of history and fiction set in Soviet Russia, it was absolutely fascinating and I keep thinking I need to re-read it. “The Child that Books Built”, however, is a very different kettle of fish, as they say.

I’ve seen the book described as a celebration of childhood reading, and in many ways it is that. In sections entitled “The Forest, “The Island”, “The Town” and “The Hole”, Spufford traces not only the history of his own development as a reader, but also that of children’s reading in general. From the initial struggles to decipher language, through the increasing confidence as the child grows older through to the need to stretch reading boundaries and finally outgrow the books of youth, Spufford gives fascinating insights into the whole process of reading. Many of these had me stopping and thinking about how I actually read and the effect it has one me.

I need fiction. I’m an addict. This is not a figure of speech. I don’t quite read a novel a day, but I certainly read some of a novel every day, and usually some of several. There is always a heap of opened paperbacks face down near the bed, always something current on the kitchen table to reach for over coffee when I wake up. Colonies of prose have formed in the bathroom and in the dimness of the upstairs landing, so that I don’t go without text even in the leftover spaces of the house where I spend least time.

However, the book is an interesting mixture; as well as the analysis of why and how we read, there is personal memoir – not only of what Spufford read, what he thought of it then and what he thinks of it now, but pertinently of his family life. This was not an easy one – his mother suffered much ill-health, developing osteoporosis at an early age but despite this managing to have an illustrious academic career. But the Spufford family suffered further after the birth of Francis’s sister Bridget who was discovered to have a rare disease, cystinosis. This changed the whole tenor of the family’s life, and had much to do with Francis’s need for reading as a coping mechanism. Bridget’s life and eventual fate are woven into the book, which tells her poignant story.

But of course, this is a book about books, and the importance of them in our lives. I found myself in sympathy with much of Spufford’s experience and reading: discovering libraries at an early age; reading the Narnia books and The Lord of the Rings; attempting the transition into adult books. At times there is that stab of recognition as you realise you’ve come across a fellow obsessive reader – and it’s nice to know you aren’t alone!

If I had any criticism to make, it would be that perhaps the psychological discussions on the development of children’s linguistic and reading skills was a little to in depth for what is a mainstream book; but then Spufford’s books *do* seem to be hybrid affairs and this one was mostly successful!

“The Child that Books Built” is definitely worth reading if you like books about books, although it’s most definitely about more than just that. It’s a stimulating, thought-provoking and ultimately very moving tale and it’s made me even keener to return to “Red Plenty”.

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