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Posted by Tom, August 8, 2011

The Child That Books Built


I am a working parent and not, let’s face facts here, a stylish one. I read with a kind of incredulous horror that many British women not that much older than me spend more on their holiday wardrobes than they do on the trip itself.

Packing clothes for a holiday is for me, secondary to packing non-clothes or not-really-clothes: suncream in a range of factors (all high); a bulging first-aid kit (so many of the accidents that have happened to my children, including the fractured skull that I can still only bear to think about sort of side-on, have happened on holiday); cagoules; walking boots; Smartwool socks; Earl Grey teabags; laptop cables; adapters; and, requiring most thought of all, books.

I feel quite panicked at the thought of being without a book, or of running out of things to read.

The photograph above is of the library of 33 print books that four of us in my family took between us on the two-week holiday (our first more-or-less real one in two years) from which we’ve just returned. There are a couple of guidebooks, walking books and wildlife books. But mainly they’re fiction. We didn’t read all of them, but we read a lot of them. I even read one of them aloud to the children, who are, other than on holiday, pretty sniffy about being read to these days.

In addition to the print titles, the sharp-eyed among you will spot an iPad (with iBooks) and two Kindles at the front of the frame. All of us used both the iPad as a reading device and the Kindles in the course of the fortnight.

I try to catch up on “grown-up” reading when I am on holiday or travelling on business, and so I keep a pile of books that I haven’t got round to reading to sweep into a suitcase. The collection here, then, wasn’t the result of a crazy pre-holiday splurge-buy. Yes, we did succumb to a book purchase each before we went on holiday, but mainly these are books that we’ve lined up for our holiday reading for months before we were due to depart. The copies of Gillespie and I and of The Tiger’s Wife were, for example, both given to me for my birthday three months ago.

Or they’re books that we want to reread.


One of the books I brought to reread on this holiday is in the foreground to the left of the hardware. It’s The Child That Books Built by Frances Spufford, who records an experience of childhood reading that is, at least until he becomes a teenager, remarkably similar to my own. Born in the same year as me, and the elder sibling of an ailing child (his seriously and, ultimately, terminally; mine, happily, neither), he came of reading age in the children’s-fiction-rich seventies, and describes an immersion in reading – as a route to escape, intensity and discovery; as a way to fill spaces in his mind and heart that his own life didn’t fill; and, later, as a part of an identity – that led to a fiction addiction in a way that speaks to me:

“I need fiction. I am 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… I can be happy with an essay or a history if it interlaces like a narrative, if its author uses fact or impression to make a story[like sense, but fiction is kind, fiction is the true stuff…

… I don’t give it up. It is entwined too deeply within my history, it has been forming the way I see for too long.”

Bits of The Child That Books Built are a bit dense and over-argued for my taste, and it is a book that reflects the age and class of its author, but Francis Spufford does capture the joys of particular books – Where the Wild Things Are, The Hobbit the Narnia books, The Wizard of Earthsea, The Story of the Amulet, The Little House on the Prarie books – in a way that reminds me clearly of my own reading evolution.

Francis Spufford seems also to have a particularly clear recollection of the process of childhood reading.


Here he is on the a child’s first exposure to story through the experience of being read to aloud and of hearing fairy stories:

“What first teaches us the nature of story is not the fixed form of writing on a page. It isn’t the page that teaches us that story is language miraculously fixed into an unvarying shape which makes absent things present… That comes after. The medium of the first encounter is an adult voice speaking, and saying the same words in the same order each time the story comes around. Once a small child grasps the principle, no one is more eager for the repetition is to be exact. The words have to be right, or they aren’t the story. ‘Don’t say, “The fox met a family of ducks.” Say, “The fox met Mr and Mrs Duck and all their duckling children” The invariability of a story is what gives it a secure existence. It adds it to the expanding sphere of what is known for sure… such as the fact that morning always comes. Or that the third little pig’s house will never blow down in any telling of the story, no matter how hard the wolf huffs and puffs. Stories are so.”


Honestly, I don’t remember being read to, and I don’t remember the process of learning to read, however clear and important my later memories of being a fluent child reader were. I wish I did remember the process of becoming a reader with the vividness that Francis Spufford describes here:

“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… In fact, writing had ceased to be a thing – an object in the world – and become a medium, a substance you look through… So the reading flowed, when I was six with the yellow hardback copy of The Hobbit in my hands; and the pictures came.”


Francis Spufford describes brilliantly the way that children can read – and this is something that I certainly remember – without being able to understand every single word on the page:

“At the same time, I couldn’t read quite a lot of the words in The Hobbit. I had accelerated into reading faster than my understanding had grown. If I press my memory for the sensation of reading the second half of the book, when I was flying through the story, I remember, simultaneous with the new liquid smoothness, a constant flicker of incomprehensibility. There were holes in the text corresponding to the parts I couldn’t understand. Words like prophesying, rekindled and adornment… I could say these words over, and shape my mouth around their big sounds. I could enjoy their heft in the sentences. They were obviously the special vocabulary that was apt for the slaying of dragons… But for all the meaning I obtained from them, they might as well not have been printed. When I speeded up, and up, and my reading became fluent, it was partly because I had learned how to ignore such words efficiently…

I found that the gaps in the text where I did not know words began to fill themselves in from the edges, as if by magic. It was not magic. I was beginning to acquire the refined and specialised sense of probability that a reader gets from frequent encounters with the texture of prose…

I remember there was an intermediate stage when strange words did not yet quite have a definite meaning of their own, but possessed a kind of atmosphere of meaning, which was a compromise between the meanings of all the other words which seemed to come up in conjunction with the unknown one, and which I had decided had a bearing on it. The holes in the text grew over… The empty spaces thickened, took on qualities which at first were not their own, then became known in their own right.”


Francis Spufford talks about those words that readers have in their internal vocabularies that, even as adults, we have no knowledge of how to pronounce, though we know what they mean:

“Such words demonstrated the autonomy of stories. In stories, words you never heard spoken nonetheless existed. They had another kind of existence.”

I have experience of this more often than I would like. I had a conversation with Adrian, just days before re-reading this book, and we were talking about whale-and-dolphin-like things (as you do). And I used the word “cetaceans” (as you do), which I pronounced, “seh-TAY-shuns”. Adrian looked momentarily puzzled. “Oh, you mean ‘set-ah-CEE-uns’,” he said. For anyone who cares, I was right in this instance, but I am often wrong.


Francis Spufford not only writes about the mechanics of childhood reading, but about how we ingest values from our reading of children’s books. He writes about learning about social obligations, about the way people ought to behave to one another, through books and, in particular, through American literature, focussing on the moral assumptions behind The Long Winter and To Kill a Mocking Bird:

“I even began to understand what was not said on the page. This was the kind of reading that can magnify your curiosity about real people, and send you back to the world better equipped to observe and comprehend… Ought ran very close below the surface of is… For me, pattern-minded child that I was, ought was the key that opened the folds and tucks of human behavior and spread it out and made it knowable.”


For me, who is, like Francis Spufford, someone unable to read (or watch) horror, he is funny and accurate on the power of the word to get stuck in your mind, so you can’t rid yourself of the images it conjures, as he describes his reaction to a story about cannibalism in The Fifteenth Pan Book of Horror Stories:

“Sometimes, when something is going to prey on your mind, you know it there and then. Some things your mind swallows, with a helpless alacrity, just so that they can be regurgitated when you least want to pay attention to them…

Maybe none of this is comprehensible to you, and my adrenalised panic in the dormitory corresponds to nothing in your experience. If so, you’re lucky. You’re part of the horror genre’s intended audience. You’re one of those people whose minds contain little or no fear they can’t bear to look at; none or little, therefore, that you can’t bring to a film or to a novel, and have it roused, coaxed expertly to a crisis, and then discharged, leaving nothing behind except the pleasant afterglow of successful catharsis. You leave the cinema and think, Hmm, time for a Chicken Korma. You lay down the Stephen King, give a comfortable shrug, and never think about it again unless you want to, you lucky bastard”.

In fact, I find that sometimes I don’t know that the words that get stuck, uninvited and unwanted, in my brain are lurking in a book until I have read them inadvertently. Sometimes I stumble upon them in a book that isn’t a genre book that clearly announces its unsettling contents.I found myself unable to finish The Slap, for example, because there was one sentence in it that ambushed me, and disturbed me to the point that I just didn’t want to pick the book up ever again.


Francis Spufford speaks about his mother noticing “a special silence, a reading silence” when the young Francis is reading in the house. He talks powerfully about the way that the silence went both ways:

“As my concentration on the story in my hands took hold, all sounds faded away. My ears closed… There was an airlock in there. It sealed to the outside so that it could open to the inside… There was a brief stage of transition in between, when I’d hear the text’s soundtrack poking through the fabric of the house’s real murmur… Then, flat on my front, with my chin on my hands, or curled in a chair like a prawn, I’d be gone.”

To the annoyance of many around me, I still do this, still become oblivious to my surroundings when I am reading. It’s something that one of my children has inherited completely, and that my other child experiences in relation to those books that she particularly enjoys.

But as a child – and and an adult – built by books myself, I think there are worse things to pass on.

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