Escape from fear

The Child that Books Built

Francis Spufford<em> Faber and Faber, 224pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 0571191

Graham Greene wrote that we are wrong to think of children as simpler creatures than adults, because it is the latter whose characters grow ever less complex with age. It is small wonder, then, that children are reassured by simplicity in the outside world when there is so little of it in their own. They want stories whose titles offer literal descriptions of their contents, such as The Lord of the Rings and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. They like value judgements to be an unequivocal part of the narrative, rather than things to be interpreted. Now that so many adults are reading books by J K Rowling and Philip Pullman, this much of their appeal has become obvious. We might be overhasty in assuming that these authors' intended child audience share our own adult motivation, but it does not seem so from 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. On the seldom-described physical act of reading, it is always acute. Spufford compares the privacy of reading a book to the experience of hanging around outside a police station while stoned, or of wearing a lace thong beneath your suit to the office: you may be outwardly solemn, but you are inwardly crazed. He is very good on the way we mispronounce words we learn through our reading, words we force ourselves to pronounce the public way, all the time believing that the proper pronunciation is our own. These quirks stay with us for ever, which means that malapropisms committed by the elderly may be a sign of memory's last fling, rather than a symptom of its demise.

When Spufford sat down to reread his childhood favourites, he found himself also recounting the story of his own life. At a time when memoirs are expected to be prurient and full of urban misery, Spufford recalls a subtle, more troubling upbringing by Keele academics who, though children of the 1950s, had never heard of Elvis and who asked if rock'n'roll was "that music with the very heavy beat". The understated tragedies of the narrative are a mother with brittle bones and a sister disabled and doomed to an early death by kidney failure.

Spufford bravely admits that he sought escape not from their suffering, but from the limits it placed on his own life: their pain was a drag on his pleasure and this, he says, made him furious. The memory of his sister's illness has made him "hate" vulnerable people, a reaction he ascribes to his inability to help them. However, we are more apt to feel guilty in these situations not for our impotence, but because we are led to pity those who do not ask to be so patronised. But it is what they can do well that really shames us.

If this memoir is an accurate record of a life in books, the author's flight from life began even before there was anything to run away from. To explain his earliest and most inarticulate memories, Spufford conjures primeval fears of abandonment in a dark forest with only the murky ideas of psychoanalysts for company. One wonders, in this case, if the breadth of his philosophical reading betrays another form of escape. After all, an interest in the questions of Plato and Socrates is but a natural step from Arthur C Clarke's world of unexplained phenomena. The man is a born escapee.

Nicholas Fearn's Zeno and the Tortoise: how to think like a philosopher is published by Atlantic Books (£6.99)

This article first appeared in the 18 March 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Far from the Promised Land