New York: Picador, 2003.
I’ve been looking forward to reading this book for ages. I keep running across references to it in other books, and the title appeals so much to me. It is like building, reading is. Architectural metaphors are so apt. We have building blocks in ABC books, we lay foundations, we build our libraries. In Spufford’s case, though, reading helps to patch cracks in his foundation.
Throughout this book, which is a combination of memoir and literary criticism, Spufford keeps returning to the fact that reading was, for him, so often about escape from a miserable home life. His younger sister suffered from a rare kidney disease, his mother from the pain of bones that broke easily because of osteoporosis, and his parents seem to have shuffled along working hard to cope until his sister died in her early twenties. Spufford coped by suppressing all emotion:
Whatever my life had been like before Bridget was born, it was over: cause for a sibling envy so big I didn’t dare show it, or even feel it much, in case it cracked the thinned skeleton of what was left (15).
Even at this distance, his memories of childhood have a palpable tension, and his fixation on the escapism into books borders on a kind of discomfort that often made me want to avert my eyes but for its beautiful clarity:
So when I read stories obsessively as a child I was striking a kind of deal that allowed me to turn away. Sometime in childhood I made a bargain that limited, so I thought, the power over me that real experience had, the real experience that comes to us in act and incident and through the proximate, continuous existence of those we love. All right, I said, I’ll let a quantity of that stream over me, if I can have a balancing portion of this, the other kind of experience, which is controlled, and repeatable, and comes off the page. (16)
Books, to use another architectural metaphor, are shelter, and he becomes addicted to the protection they offer. He seeks that escape even into young adulthood, when he turns to the comforts of genre fiction, of books that do your thinking for you, an uncomfortable admission to hear from a bookish boy.
That is not to say that Spufford is not a thinking man. His chapters are organized around common literary tropes from children’s books–The Forest, The Island, The Town and The Hole–and they approach, respectively, the role of fairy tales, the appeal of fantasy, the comforts of fictional communities, and, finally, the appeal of science fiction and pornography to a young man who still wants the predictable comforts of the page. Memoir and literary criticism are not always seamlessly blended, and the gears grind occasionally as he switches them, but the chapter on The Town is well worth the wait. In it, he articulates the beautiful paradox that the community he found in fictional towns continued to insulate him from real people in the real world.
I have struggled with writing this post because so much of the book is melancholy, and the joys Spufford describes are, for him, the dubious and tainted joys of much-needed escape. Reading is not like that for me. It is not melancholy, and its joys are not tainted. I’ve had to read through the pity the book arouses to the wonderful insights it offers about what books can offer.