Penelope Lively on Francis Spufford, The Child that Books Built

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Francis Spufford’s The Child that Books Built is a short book that seems long, expansive, excursive. Of course – it cites a host of other books, from Where the Wild Things Are through The Little House on the Prairie to Nineteen Eighty-Four; it is packed with reference, with discussion. A book about books and, above all, a book about the power of books, about the manipulative effect of fiction, about the way in which story can both mirror and influence the process of growing up. A child learns to read, discovers the possibilities of that retreat into the pages of a book, and its life is never quite the same again.

Francis Spufford describes his own childhood reading addiction and, in the process, dissects with wit and erudition the significant forces at work behind fairy story, behind mythology, behind such archetypal story-telling as science fiction, behind the eventual complexity of novelists such as Borges and Calvino. He charts his own reading life, from the moment ‘the furze of black marks between the covers of The Hobbit grew lucid, and released a dragon’ to his adolescent forays into meta-fiction, stories about stories.

What have books done, for the reading child? Spufford is clear: ‘They freed us from the limitations of having just one limited life with one point of view; they let us see beyond the horizon of our own circumstances.’ Quite so. Reading is not escape – though it can indeed be that too; it is the discovery of alternative existences, where things are done differently. It is the discovery of our own disturbing nature, as we see a little boy tame the rampaging, snorting monsters of his own anger in Where the Wild Things Are. It is the discovery of the moral obligations of adult society, as we endure The Long Winter with Laura and her family in a snow-bound town in Dakota. We are condemned to live one life – as me, myself, in the prison of my own mind; but no,

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About the contributor

Penelope Lively once had the temerity to write for children, but has not done so for decades. The Folio Society is about to produce an edition of The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, which would astonish her alter ego who wrote it so long ago.

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