Aug 28 2020

The ChildThat Books Built by Francis Spufford

The Child That Books Built, Francis Spufford’s second book, published six years after his first, raises a publishing question that I have long been interested in, but one that I suspect does not have any firm answer. How does an editor spot someone whose first book or two are strong but who is likely to grow and write even better books? There is a lot to be said in favor of The Child That Books Built — it’s concise, clear about what its aims, features a structure that works on more than one level, and so forth — but Red Plenty and Golden Hill the other two Spufford books that I have read (out of four that have followed) are simply extraordinary. Red Plenty isn’t quite like anything else at all; it tackles an enormous historical and philosophical question, and demonstrates its answers at the intersection of fiction and non-fiction, breathing humanity and urgency into something that at first sounds terribly dull. Golden Hill brings to life old New York, not long after its change from New Amsterdam, and shows just who liked it better that way.

The Child that Books Built by Francis Spufford

Is it possible to see those later books in Spufford’s earlier work, as he sees his grown self emerging from the books he read as a child? Certainly some of the aspects are there, as he gives the book a clear overall shape, one that serves his theses so that literary form and content work together. The breezy, conversational style is there, too, although in Red Plenty he was not afraid of echoing some of the Soviet rhetoric he was investigating, and Golden Hill gave a feel of colonial-era speech, even if it was tuned to a modern ear. While Spufford is in some ways the author that this book built, he has grown beyond it as surely as the child he depicts in four different stages grows past previous favorites.

Did an editor spot that possibility right away, or in the six-year gap between the first two? I don’t know; I suppose it would be possible to ask. Can that sort of thing be done more generally? Some writers announce themselves so forcefully with their first book that their chosen area immediately takes notice. Somewhere between several and numerous authors have, for example, won the Hugo award with their debut novels. Walter M. Miller, Jr. with A Canticle for Leibowitz, Frank Herbert with Dune, William Gibson with Neuromancer, or more recently Anne Leckie with Ancillary Justice or this year’s winner Arkady Martine with A Memory Called Empire. The first three are landmarks in the field, but whose authors took very different paths. Miller never published another novel; Herbert published many more, though his bibliography is very much Dune and everything else; Gibson continues to enjoy a visionary career. With Leckie and Martine it’s probably too soon to tell.

I suspect that editors can no more tell which author will shuck the chrysalis of their early work than a young Spufford could tell that he would eventually want to do more than immerse himself in Narnia. As he writes, “For four or five years, I essentially read other books because I could not always be re-reading the Narnia books. I had a book-a-day habit to support, and there were only seven of them after all. But in other books, I was always seeking for partial or diluted reminders of Narnia, always hoping for a gleam of the sensation of Narnia. Once felt, never forgotten.” (p. 87) That is from “The Island,” the second of four sections in the book that correspond to Spufford’s different ages, the different stages of childhood development that he generalizes from psychological literature and applies to himself by way of the books that he was reading at that age.

The first, “The Forest” concerns the subconscious and the way that young readers build a scaffolding of story that will support them as they widen their range of sensations and abilities, both in reading and in the wider world. “The Island” mostly concerns going out into the world and into adventures. “My favourite books were the ones that took books’ implicit status as other world, and acted on it literally, making the window of writing a window onto imaginary countries. I didn’t just want to see in books what I saw anyway in the world around me, even if it was perceived and understood and articulated from angles I could never have achieved; I wanted to see things I never saw in life.” (p. 82)

The third and fourth sections add increasingly complex interactions with other people. He was a particular fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, and he explores how books about boarding schools meet a young person’s need to imagine a society without parents immediately present. And while he wants more than literalism, he never loses his taste for letting loose. “But when you’re fourteen the dimensions of your own character that you will ultimately have to get used to, and respect, are hopelessly unclear, while the restrictions imposed on your life are all too apparent. Sensible, probable books keep sending you back where you came from. It’s the wild and tacky ones that let you see further into the world you do not yet know. It’s the books that dispense with rigour and proportion that let your imagination billow out, and go exploring. … Their freedom from what really is becomes your freedom, very directly. They give you scope.” (p. 178)

In The Child That Books Built, Spufford gives himself scope to talk about how books shaped him, why he dug so much deeper into printed words than anyone else around him, and how those patterns might apply more generally. He is at times unsparing, being forthright about his younger sister’s inherited and eventually fatal genetic condition. He’s funny and lively, reminding me of beloved books and also showing the specialness of ones I missed. All of those years of books built a very good author indeed.

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