Sonderbooks Book Reviews by Sondra Eklund

Sonderbooks Stand-out 2005
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****The Child That Books Built

A Life in Reading

by Francis Spufford

Reviewed February 5, 2005.
Metropolitan Books (Henry Holt), 2002.  213 pages.
Available at Sembach Library (028.5509 SPU).
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2005 (#7, Biography)

Reading this book, I found a kindred spirit.  Francis Spufford says, “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 facedown 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.”

Francis Spufford goes on to tell about his childhood by telling about the books he loved.  Since he was born the same year I was, and since I, too, was a voracious reader, many of them are the same books.  Since he was a boy growing up in England, the list is different in many ways, but the principle of reading everything he could get his hands on was the same.  He talks about how he discovered the world through books.

He, too, longed to be able to visit Narnia.  “The books I loved best...started in this world and took you to another....  I wanted there to be the chance to pass through a portal, and by doing so to pass from rusty reality with its scaffolding of facts and events into the freedom of story.  I wanted there to be doors.  If, in a story, you found the one panel in the fabric of the workaday world that was hinged, and it opened, and it turned out that behind the walls of the world flashed the gold and peacock blue of something else, and you were able to pass through, that would be a moment in which all the decisions that had been taken in this world, and all the choices that had been made, and all the facts that had been settled, would be up for grabs again:  all possibilities would be renewed, for who knew what lay on the other side?

“And once opened, the door would never entirely shut behind you either.”

Of The Chronicles of Narnia, he says:  “They were the Platonic Book of which other books were more or less imperfect shadows.  For four or five years, I essentially read other books because I could not always be rereading the Narnia books.”

He goes on to talk about the books that appealed to him at different stages.  When he was ready for books for adults, he was puzzled by the titles:  “If a children’s book was called The Blue Hawk, it would have a hawk that was blue in it, with claws and wings and wild raptor eyes.  If it was called The Perilous Descent, you could count on it being about a descent that was perilous:  two World War Two airmen stranded on a sandbank fall through a hole into an underground passage, and go down and down and down, through shafts and chasms, until they land by parachute in a subterranean country peopled by the descendants of shipwrecked refugees.  Perfectly straightforward.  Adult authors, on the other hand, seemed to be constitutionally incapable of giving a book a truthful name.  Try The Middle of the Journey, and you got a bunch of academics in New York State sitting around and talking to each other.  Did they set off for anywhere?  They did not.  The Centaur did not contain a centaur:  it turned out to be just some bloody metaphor.”

The book is full of musings like that about books and reading, things I hadn’t necessarily noticed myself, but readily recognize.  Here’s another one I like:  “The words we learned exclusively from having books infill their meaning for us are the ones we pronounce differently from everyone else.  Or, if we force ourselves to say them the public way, secretly we believe the proper pronunciation is our own, deduced from the page and not corrected by hearing the word aloud until it was too late to alter its sound.”  My ten-year-old son has several of those now and gets terribly annoyed if the others of us in the family try to correct him.

Anyone who loved to read as a child will find much to smile about and think over in this book.  Reading it is what inspired me to start my column on Children and Books.  I’m starting with stories about reading to my kids, but I mean to get around to writing about the joys of being a kid reading—something this book reminded me of.

Copyright © 2005 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

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