February 05, 2004

The Child That Books Built

Have you ever read a book that's simultaneously so intriguing and so irritating that part of you feels driven to keep reading and part of you wants to close the book in disgust? This evening I've been reading The Child That Books Built, in which the writer Francis Spufford describes how books and reading shaped his childhood. Sometimes the book strikes me as pompous and pretentious; the writing style can be irritating, and Spufford seems proud of himself for including references to Wittgenstein, De Quincey, and Chomsky. Other parts did a fantastic job capturing the excitement that good children's books can inspire in their readers. In short, I feel quite conflicted about Spufford's writing.

In this entry, however, I'll focus on the admirable side of The Child That Books Built. Spufford's taste in children's lit is similar to mine--that is, he focuses on the classics, loves fantasy novels like The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, and seems willing to read most anything if it catches his fancy. Reading Spufford made me wish that I'd had the chance to read the books of Rosemary Sutcliffe, Alan Garner, and Leon Garfield.

Spufford doesn't just describe his own childhood experiences as a reader, however. He also delves into contemporary criticism of classic children's books. One of my favorite sections dealt with Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series:

In 1993 William Holtz announced that he had studied the manuscripts of the books, and that they had effectively been written by Rose Wilder Lane, Laura Ingalls Wilder's daughter and a skilled novelist in her own right. Rather than being the memories of an "untutored genius," they were the disguised handiwork of a pro. Laura-the-character was a construct. Events from the family history had been selected and combined to give the stories dramatic unity, and sometimes excised altogether. In the writing of The Long Winter, for example, Rose had deleted the presence of a married couple who had shared the building on Main Street with the Ingallses for those seven months, and made a hard time worse with their insufficient stoicism.

Holtz's book caused outrage. It was not the idea that particular incidents might not be trustworthy that so upset a large section of the Little House audience: it was a threat to the emotional authenticity of the experience each had had. There was a feeling that a promise had been made to the reader by the little girl they had first met in Little House in the Big Woods, and this news seemed to break it....

Holtz also showed that the books had been influenced by Rose's politics, which were right-wing libertarian, in the style of Ayn Rand or Robert Heinlein. Her beliefs did overlap with her mother's. Both women believed that the New Deal was an abuse of the federal government's powers, and a terrible attack on the self-reliant traditions of the frontier. [Spufford goes on to say that Rose "thought that all taxes were theft, that social security numbers were incipiently totalitarian, and that the FBI was as bad as the Gestapo.... Even elections were dubious: they might give an imprudent majority the power to demand their neighbors' property."] And this vision shaped the books, especially the later ones in the series: not as anything as dishonorable as propaganda, but as a deep substructure of values.

Spufford argues that the collaboration between mother and daughter was more subtle and active than Holtz believed, and he's persuasive in showing that the books' ideological message and complicated authorship make the series far more complex than it initially appears.

Spufford's account of The Chronicles of Narnia was fascinating, but in a different way. It seemed simultaneously perceptive and creepy:

Aslan has two distinct speaking voices. To the boys in the series, he is stern, man-to-man and noble in an archaic way. "Rise up, Sir Peter Wolf's-Bane. And, whatever happens, never forget to wipe your sword." To the girls, he is tender and even playful. "Oh children, catch me if you can." "Speak on, dear heart." Of course, as a reader, you can be both the girls and the boys, whichever sex you are yourself, and so get Aslan both as ideal father and as something verging on ideal lover too. Of all the ten different children in the seven separate books, it is Lucy, the youngest girl, who is clearly Lewis's own surrogate in the book--the person he would like to be in relation to Aslan, confiding, enchanted, wholly unafraid. "And he was solid and real and warm and he let her kiss him and bury herself in his shining mane." But Lewis keeps returning to the situation in which guilt has to be brought to Aslan, to be judged and purged.... The idea of being looked at by the lion and wholly known made me feel naked.

The beginning of the paragraph above seems intelligent and interesting. I'm skeptical that Spufford felt "naked" while reading the book as a child, however, and the idea of Aslan as an "ideal lover" strikes me as questionable.

At its best, The Child That Books Built captures the excitement of reading and provides insightful commentary on familiar children's books. I still love good stories, even if they're intended for younger readers, and Spufford can make this interest seem natural and appealing; it's nice to see a writer on a similar wavelength. At its worst, however, The Child That Books Built seems both pompous and a bit creepy--which really makes me hope that we're on different wavelengths after all. But if you can move beyond the book's less pleasant side, then Spufford's book is worth delving into.

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