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the Complete Review
the complete review - autobiographical



The Child That Books Built

by
Francis Spufford


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Child That Books Built



Title: The Child That Books Built
Author: Francis Spufford
Genre: Memoir
Written: 2002
Length: 210 pages
Availability: The Child That Books Built - US
The Child That Books Built - UK
The Child That Books Built - Canada
  • UK subtitle: A Memoir of Childhood and Reading
  • US subtitle: A Life in Reading

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Our Assessment:

B : fairly interesting look at childhood reading

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age . 17/6/2002 M.J Hyland
The Economist A 30/3/2002 .
Evening Standard . 19/3/2002 Jane Shilling
The Guardian . 30/3/2002 Michael Rosen
The Independent . 25/3/2002 Nicholas Tucker
London Rev. of Books . 25/4/2002 Thomas Jones
The New Republic . 23/12/2002 Zoë Heller
New Statesman A 18/3/2002 Nicholas Fearn
The NY Times Book Rev. A+ 2/2/2003 James Shapiro
The New Yorker . 23/12/2002 .
The Observer . 3/3/2002 Robert McCrum
The Spectator . 13/4/2002 Judith Flanders
Sydney Morning Herald A 6/7/2002 Jenny Tabakoff
Times Ed. Supp. . 8/3/2002 Peter Hollindale
TLS A 15/3/2002 Robert Irwin


  Review Consensus:

  Very impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "Spufford keeps most of the stuff of memoir under lock and key. Nor is this a novel. This is a serious, first-class essay, with only a little bit of the memoir promised. But it's still a great book. (...) What we get from Spufford's journey through books is lots of good writing, but it's sometimes heavy" - M.J Hyland, The Age

  • "The Child That Books Built, however, is far more than a bookworm's nostalgia trip. Making use of research in cognitive psychology, literary criticism and linguistics, Mr Spufford has tried to understand exactly how the books he read between babyhood and the age of 19 changed the way he thought." - The Economist

  • "Whether the enchantments of this memoir would work completely on a reader who had come late to books, the lineaments of whose mind had been formed by television rather than the written word, it is hard to tell; the beauty and intensity of the writing are probably sufficient to entrap anyone who has ever wondered what exactly happens when one reads." - Jane Shilling, Evening Standard

  • "Spufford has written a genre-busting text. (...) All this is a refreshing contrast with that strangely anonymous critical voice that anyone studying literature is taught to imitate. Here, surely, is what theorists from the reader-response school have always asked for: reading in personal context, reading with the self. Well, yes and no. (...) Spufford has made a great contribution in showing us how he finds himself in the book. It's a pity he didn't show us more about how he found his way there." - Michael Rosen, The Guardian

  • "Still well under 40, he spent his formative reading years in the children's section of Newcastle-under-Lyme public library. His beautifully written account of this reading stretches from The Hobbit up to an adolescent plunge into the world of soft porn." - Nicholas Tucker, The Independent

  • "And yet I'm not sure that Spufford ever really succeeds in persuading us that childhood reading is dangerous as such. (...) It seems unnecessary for Spufford to have framed his enormously interesting memoir as a masculine mea culpa." - Zoë Heller, The New Republic

  • "Francis Spufford's witty, compelling and elegant memoir of his earliest encounters with books. Although he marshals sources as wide as Chomsky, Piaget and Jung to account for his development as a reader, this drains nothing from the experience, while offering him a vocabulary with which to enjoy the same stories all over again. This is the kind of book to be placed immediately among one's favourite curios." - Nicholas Fearn, New Statesman

  • "The Child That Books Built offers a passionate defense of those whose reading pleasure derives from storytelling and who unashamedly love thrillers, science fiction and metafiction (.....) It's a brilliant book, beautifully written" - James Shapiro, The New York Times Book Review

  • "I admire Spufford's tact, decency and self-control and his acute literary intelligence, but I suspect that many readers will wish that he could somehow have found the words to explore the vulnerable parts of his heart, and lucidly to express his findings. Then a remarkable book might have become a brilliant one." - Robert McCrum, The Observer

  • "He puts up a good argument for genre, but genre doesn’t need an argument: genre is there for readers who are too tired to read. It soothes and it consoles, but it doesn’t excite or enlighten. But apart from this, I am with Spufford all the way in his elegant, imaginative exploration of the mind of the reading child." - Judith Flanders, The Spectator

  • "He writes beautifully, with that verve and love of words that, mysteriously, is often missing when academics write about literature. (...) This is a wonderful, original book that will strike a chord with anyone built on books." - Jenny Tabakoff, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "The Child That Books Built is not so much the chronicle of an adult's return to childish haunts, but rather an attempt to reconstruct through an unusual combination of introspection and the elements of cognitive psychology, some idea of how one particular child read, why he read and what he was capable of absorbing from books at each stage of his development. (...) There is far more of interest in this brilliant book than can even be hinted at here" - Robert Irwin, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Francis Spufford is a reader. And not just a reader, but a fiction-obsessed reader. "I need fiction", he writes early in The Child That Books Built. "I'm an addict."
       Admirably he acknowledges: "fiction is king, fiction is the true stuff". Love of fiction often fades with age, but it hasn't yet for Spufford. He still has that passion. It is, in part, a childish passion, and it's nice to see he hasn't outgrown it. Still in this same thrall he focusses in this book on what reading is to the child -- or was, to him. The Child That Books Built traces his early reading-career: what books meant, what reading them did, and ultimately how they shaped first the child and then the man.
       Spufford writes of always being a bookish lad. He also (or primarily ?) sought out the escape in the literary because of domestic difficulties, his younger sister being afflicted with cystinosis -- "a ridiculously rare disease, a disaster it is almost absurd to be afflicted with". The amazing world of books allowed him to move in different worlds -- and also to learn about the world (indeed, many worlds), making it easier for him to make his place in it.
       The Child That Books Built offers a bit of child-psychology, from Bettelheim to Piaget, and a good deal of story-telling theory. More fun are the author's own experiences: from learning to read to moving from C.S.Lewis (when he is eleven or twelve the Chronicles of Narnia "were the Platonic Book of which other books were more or less imperfect shadows") to Laura Ingalls Wilder to Ian Fleming.
       Spufford writes well, and many of his musings -- his reading-riffs -- are entertaining and interesting. There's a good deal of interesting material here -- from how readers fill in gaps (of everything from missing letters to unfamiliar words or even ideas) to various very personal reactions to texts. The book does suffer some from the expectation of a certain familiarity with the books he covers -- a somewhat odd selection, reflecting what he grew up with (some of which a younger generation won't be as familiar with). Also: Spufford writes confidently about how reading affected him, but not all of it rings entirely true: much seems re-imagined through his now-adult eyes.
       Still, it's an interesting, entertaining read -- and one wishes he had written more.

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Links:

The Child That Books Built: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British journalist Francis Spufford was born in 1964.

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© 2003-2008 the complete review

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