The Child that Books Built, Francis Spufford

I read about this on Nick Hornby’s Waterstone’s “Writer’s Table” – authors pick out books that are supposed to have “shaped their writing”, and they write little reviews in a few words.  I can’t remember why I was looking at Nick Hornby’s Waterstone’s Writer’s Table – although Nick Hornby is absolutely inextricably linked in my mind to the month I spent in London in 2005.  There was a heat stroke in the second week of July, and the dorm where we were staying didn’t have air conditioning of course, and my room was on the third (American fourth) floor, so it was absolutely boiling.  I didn’t have a lot of money to spend on food in air-conditioned restaurants.  Instead of that I wandered around London finding bookstores with squashy armchairs and air conditioning, and I read A Long Way Down and About a Boy and How to be Good.  It was good times apart from how guilty I felt for sitting in Waterstone’s bookshops (and Borders and Blackwell’s and Foyle’s) all over London reading books I had no intention of buying.

In any case, this book looked very appealing.  I don’t know if this is true of everyone, but one of the reasons I carry on loving reading so much is that I love that moment when you are reading a book and you come across a sentence and you think, This person knows me – this person is me.  Admittedly I worry more than most people about being crazy, so maybe I find it disproportionately reassuring to read my own thoughts in somebody else’s book.  The world is a complicated and bewildering place, and it’s hard to decide whether you’re behaving in a way that’s acceptable and normal.  It’s so legitimizing to read that someone else is doing the same thing, because then, if you’re not doing things right, at least you’re not doing them uniquely wrong.

(Oscar Wilde said, Life reflects art.  Not the other way around.)

The Child that Books Built is a memoir about books and reading, and how they shape a child’s life.  The author talks about the books he read as a kid, how he used them as an escape from finding a way to deal with his younger sister’s very serious illness.  He explores all this in the contexts of child development, cognitive psychology, and all that lot, which is really interesting too.  He talks about how he used to read books in bookstores and feel that he had stolen from the bookstores because the book would be in his head when he left; and he also says he can sometimes spend thirty minutes picking a book to read while he cleans his teeth, which is so exactly me too.  (Hooray.)

I would have liked him to talk more about more books I read as a kid, though that’s not of course his problem.  But when he was talking at length about books I read as a kid, it was fascinating.  He talked about the Narnia books and how captivating he found them, and how sensory C.S. Lewis made his world, even though Narnia wasn’t very cohesive (with the witch and the shades of the Arabian Nights and Father Christmas and slavery).  I’d never really thought about it but the descriptions of food in his books were always gorgeous – whenever I drink water that’s really good, clear, nice water (i.e., whenever I drink tap water at home, God bless my home and its clean water), I am always, always thinking about the sea water they drink at the end of Dawn Treader.  Remember that water?

Then it was also interesting when he talked about American literature.  He said he had a hard time placing America, in time as well as space, so that it was never exactly clear to him when the American books were set, how they lined up with English history.  (Oh, he also said that his town celebrated their octocentenary.  I had to go back and read that twice to make sure I hadn’t imagined it.  Octocentenary.  There is nothing in America that is celebrating its octocentenary.)  I was so interested to read about the Little House books from the perspective of a British dude.  He said a thing about how in America, individual freedom is an end in itself, not leading to something else the way (he says) it tends to be in Britain – which I’d never thought of before.  And because I haven’t read those books as an adult, I haven’t really thought about the extent to which the family puts a tremendously high premium on freedom.

Anyway, there was a load of stuff about Ursula LeGuin that sailed right over my head because I never read any of her books until recently and I hated The Wizard of Earthsea; and then some things about science fiction which again were no good to me at all – just have not read very much science fiction.  And I wish he had said more about Diana Wynne Jones.  Everyone should say more about Diana Wynne Jones; I love Diana Wynne Jones.

So thanks, Nick Hornby and Waterstone’s!  I got the book out of the library yesterday, and returned it today, and now I’m pretending it never happened, because really, it’s just getting ridiculous, I must absolutely not get any more books from the library, because I haven’t finished the ones I’ve got, and I want to start reading the books I bought at the book bazaar.  This weekend I’m going to be a reading fiend: I’m going to finish my Murrow biography and read that book about dancing and that book about Wales, at least, and if I have time I shall also read Beyond Black and/or that Barbara Hambly book whose title I can’t remember.