Francis Spufford on Childhood books 1: Why fiction matters
Francis Spufford has gained a bit of a following for his recent Unapologetic – a quirky defence of Christianity which various bloggers have picked up on (I’ve only dipped into it but will read it fully soon and perhaps blog). But he has one of the most surprising and unique literary voices around. I was fascinated by his Red Plenty last year (an extraordinary account, part fiction/part history, of the heyday of Soviet Optimism in the 1950s) and have now just finished his simply sublime The Child that Books Built (Faber, 2002).
It is a memoir of his childhood as told through the books he read along the way. He was someone who thrived (or perhaps survived) through difficult family life (in which a younger sister was best by a very rare genetic illness) and boarding school by reading. For this book, however, he decided to revisit as an adult all those books he loved to discern what kept him spellbound.
This is an erudite and deeply intellectual book (I did get lost in some of his delvings into child psychology) so perhaps not everybody’s cup of tea – but there is so much to chew on. So it is worth a few excerpts in a few different posts.
A great part of the power of fiction rests on its ability to indicate, to point out truths once we allow it to work as an arena for people like ourselves, who happen to be imaginary. (p7)
Once books were sacred, literally: the regime of reading was set by the experience of reading scripture. But in the secular times of the last three centuries, which brought us printed words on every subject, print to screw into a ball and flip away after a single reading sometimes, the promise of revelation has splintered, and the splinters have fallen separately, without losing all of their original brightness. One smithereen (at least) has glimmered in the novel. With its conventions that mimic the three dimensions of the world off the page, and its simulation of time passing as measured by experience’s ordinary clocks, we hope ti can bring a fully uttered clarity to the living we do, which is, we known, so hard to disentangle and articulate. And when it does, when a fiction does trip a profound recognition… the reward is more than an inert item of knowledge. The book becomes part of the history of our self-understanding The stories that mean most to us join the process by which we come to be securely our own. Literacy allows access to a huge force for development. When an adult in a remote village rejoices that ABC is mastered, it isn’t just because books bring the world to them; books bring them, in new ways, to themselves. (p8-9)
And this seems to be endemic, wherever in the world we are.
The essential breakthrough of human language is that events of every kind are represented. We tell stories all the time when we speak. Storytelling may be the function that made language worth acquiring. The two-year-old who has started to understand the rules of story is coming into an inheritance which may be as genetic as the upright gait of our branch of primates, or our opposable thumbs. (p46)
Come back for his simply wonderful analysis of the joys of Narnia.