Brought up by books: Lucy Mangan examines the lifelong impact of childhood reading

“I was always utterly elsewhere,” writes Mangnan, as she navigates Harry Potter, Goodnight Mister Tom and The Hungry Caterpillar.

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If you are a bookworm, any book that opens with the quote “People say that life’s the thing, but I prefer reading” is going to press the right button. A bookworm is somebody who is not just a reader but one who would find prison comparatively agreeable provided it was stocked with a good library. As such, Lucy Mangan is a kindred spirit.

Her memoir of childhood reading follows in the footsteps of Francis Spufford’s classic The Child That Books Built, Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book, and Laura Freeman’s The Reading Cure in describing the evolution of a personality largely forged by fiction discovered in the author’s earliest and most impressionable incarnation. A relatively new form of autobiography, it is both engagingly intimate and relatively discreet, evoking companionable nostalgia rather than embarrassing personal revelations.

The daughter of a GP mother and a National Theatre stage manager father, Mangan is the elder of two daughters. The wit evident in her columns for the Guardian makes this a much funnier, less reverential memoir than usual, with plenty of comic riffs, such as when she finally gets to see the countryside she has read about but can’t bear to put her books down to explore its reality. Where Spufford’s memoir was a profound meditation on the origins and experience of the reading habit, Mangan’s is a celebratory romp that will send you back to your own earliest passions.

She begins with Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, whose pierced pages add a tactile dimension to a book that introduces children to the concept of counting, and the possibility of metamorphosis through greed. It’s a perfect metaphor for the bookworm herself.

As she surges forwards through her early years, she adds potted biographies of various authors. The invention of illustrated children’s books, the arrival of Where the Wild Things Are creator Maurice Sendak, Jill Murphy’s Worst Witch series as a precursor to Harry Potter, and Mangan’s eventual discovery of classics from The Secret Garden to Goodnight Mister Tom, follow in a familiar pattern. “I was always utterly elsewhere,” Mangan says, and if reading is your drug of choice, this will elicit a nod.

What is missing from this memoir is more of a rallying cry for both public libraries and greater coverage of children’s books in the media. It is astounding that national newspapers, wholly dependent on the reading habit, fail to see that by not fostering young readers they are cutting
off their own future. However, what Mangan does point up is the vital process of rereading, which tends to demand ownership as well as borrowing. I, too, spent all my pocket money on books, and still do. However, if a child can’t afford this, the outlook is grim.

In an age in which innumerable adults have turned to reading and rereading Harry Potter, or remain stuck on YA fantasy, and parents and teachers fret about millions of children not reading at all, there is plenty to worry about. Mangan herself has found that her son Alexander (“whom I love more than books”) has so far not taken to the stories she adores.

If you love anything and anyone, you long to yoke the two passions together. The sad truth is that it tends to be harder to get boys hooked on books in the same way that girls are. They would rather run around, talk to real people or surf the internet. Yet, as Mangan points out, an addiction to reading is not necessarily an indicator of exceptional intelligence.

The other thing missing from Bookworm is an account of how deleterious the teaching of English has become in schools, possibly because Mangan’s son is too young to have encountered this yet. Any child who reads fluently in primary school finds class readers agonising: from the achingly unimaginative Biff and Chip Oxford Reading Tree series to the choices of books on the national curriculum, you could hardly do better at crushing the joy out of young readers if you tried.

“Books have not isolated me – they have connected me,” Mangan says. “What non-bookworms get by meeting actual people, we get from reading.” A shame the emphasis is on the solitary, because there are no friends (or lovers) like those with whom you share a love of reading. Mangan was lucky in having one parent, her father, who shared her private passion; but what of the child who has neither, and whose only hope is the rare teacher or librarian who can ignite the spark? We need a better understanding of what, besides luck,
makes bookworms – and the beautiful butterflies that bookworms can still, with better feeding, become. 

Amanda Craig’s latest book “The Lie of the Land” is published by Little, Brown

Bookworm: a Memoir of Childhood Reading
Lucy Mangan
Square Peg, 336pp, £14.99

This article appears in the 01 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the radical left