“A near-divine miracle”

Lucy Mangan: Bookworm.
A memoir of childhood reading
Vintage 2018

“[Y]ou simply never know what a child is going to find in a book (or a graphic novel, or a comic, or whatever) — what tiny throwaway line might be the spark that lights the fuse that sets off an explosion in understanding whose force echoes down years.”
— Chapter 8

Lucy Mangan knows what it is that makes someone a bookworm because she is one herself. And as a retired teacher (and former schoolboy, now recidivist bookworm) I can vouch for the fact that throwaway lines, whether written or spoken, are often the unexpected catalysts in later life determining personal philosophies or prejudices, likes or hates, potential triggers for creativity or lasting pessimism.

Bookworm is for all those who from an early age discovered that books are one’s entry to lives beyond our immediate experience. It’s also for those who have forgotten what it was that they read at that age, or have foolishly put it behind them as inconsequential: because this is not merely a nostalgia-fest, it’s an examination of how one person went on a voyage of discovery to visit people and places and different times, to see how others have lived and may still live their lives; and through her voyage one may see what nuggets of truth she has brought back that may enrich our own lives.

Above all it’s a plea not to deny children the pain and pleasure that access to all literature affords them:

[C]hildren should be allowed to read anything at any time. They will take out of it whatever they are ready for. And just occasionally, it will ready them for something else.

It’s a brave parent or guardian who allows the child this freedom, but the alternative is to leave them unprepared in the mistaken hope that they are protecting that youngster.

I don’t want to make this book sound heavy and polemical: it is anything but. With humour — much of it self-disparaging — and wit the author takes us at a gallop through her own childhood, from picture books through first readers on onwards. We hear of her encounters with book corners in early education, then libraries and on to the beginnings of a personal collection that now numbers ten thousand books (which puts my carefully curated 1500 titles in the shade). And all through it we see how books reflected her inner life and family dynamics, shaped her understanding of people and of the world.

I won’t spoil your enjoyment of this romp through one person’s bibliophilia — you should really discover it yourself — except to add a couple of points. While the choice and discussion of books is of necessity intensely personal, with sections on classics, British boarding school series, pony stories, Sweet Valley High School and so on, there is a wide consideration of genres from dystopias to fantasy, tales of children in times of war and realistic novels reflecting the vicissitudes of modern life.

Above all this is a celebration of the true literary amateur:

“The genuinely clever people get the promotions and the money, which is as it should be […] We bookworms don’t mind, because we only need enough money for books, and promotion would mean longer working hours and less time to read.”
— Chapter 10

Lucy Mangan is Virgil to our Dante in Bookworm, but she adopts different personae: sometimes she’s Terry Pratchett with seriously flippant footnotes, other times a sagacious Mary Beard drawing moral lessons from historical fiction. She sings a paean to Puffin Books, devotes a whole chapter to Enid Blyton’s siren lure, half a page to Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles (“fine-grained and sweeping epics, almost overwhelming to the senses”) and, at the end, appends a select list of titles mentioned, beginning with Eric Carl’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar and ending with Summer of My German Soldier, I Capture the Castle and The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.

Bookworm deserves the plaudits it has received so far (magical — passionate — consoling — opinionated — enchanting), so I will only conclude with this final quote which, to me, epitomises where Mangan is coming from and why I love her for it:

“Books connect you with others. […] They are insurmountable proof that the bundle of flaws, fancies, idiocies, instincts, anxieties and aptitudes that is you is neither unique nor alone. […] If that doesn’t strike you as a near-divine miracle, nothing will.”
— Chapter 10

I offer this review as my contribution to World Book and Copyright Day, “a celebration to promote the enjoyment of books and reading. Each year, on 23 April, celebrations take place all over the world to recognize the magical power of books – a link between the past and the future, a bridge between generations and across cultures.”

23 thoughts on ““A near-divine miracle”

  1. Pingback: “A near-divine miracle” — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

  2. I attribute much of my happy childhood to the books I disappeared into, frequently, and for hours on end. I’m grateful to my parents, who nurtured and abetted this love, and helped me cultivate my tastes. Also to Kaye Webb, the Editor of Puffin Books with impeccable taste during the very years of my childhood when I could benefit from it most. The illustrators were important, too. Children must have illustrations in their books, but they must not be talked down to. This Kaye Webb believed strongly, and so do I.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Kaye Webb is clearly nothing less than a force of nature for many of our generation, among whose fans is Lizza, daughter of Joan Aiken (who was herself supported so ably and enthusiastically by Webb). For some reason I was late to the admiration party — was it that my parents stuck to the classics for me, or that for me many of the books were marketed in garish, childish design? I don’t know — but I certainly was a fan when our own kids were of an age to be read to. We still have many of the paperbacks on dedicated shelves ready for grandchildren to discover, though half of them are more likely to be behind a screen than a book.

      And illustrations, they were half the joy, weren’t they?

      Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re much too kind, Jo, but really the book deserved all the praise it has got so it was not so hard to add to it. I did have the nicest possible tweet from the author though, who said the review “contains some of the kindest, most thoughtful things I’ve read abt Bookworm, and I’m so moved and grateful. Plus, it’s on the most-perfectly-attuned-to-my-needs book blog I’ve ever seen.” I’m still glowing now!


  3. A fab review of a fab book! (And a very appropriate celebration of World Book Day). 🙂 There’s something wonderful about reading about other people’s childhood reading, seeing where your book paths crossed and which trails others chose. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I haven’t, no. My non-fiction tastes seem so all over the place that I haven’t been sure how useful my thoughts would be. (I am still pretty new to this whole blogging thing – only in my third year). I really admire bormgans’ non-fiction reviews, and I loved this one of yours that I’ve read … maybe it’s still something I could do.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I really like Bart’s reviews, they are often challenging but always precise (in an expansive way) and incisive, like a post-mortem dissection! I tend to be more broad-brush and ‘wow!’

          And don’t feel the years I have on you with blogging in any way suggest any kind of lesser worth—I’m always in awe of newish bloggers who seem to spring newly-formed like Athene from virtually nowhere!

          Anyway, it’s something I’d love to read if you decided to put down your thoughts on Bookworm in a post—everybody has a different perspective on things even if conclusions are broadly similar.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Hmmm, I shall think on it. I would like to try doing a couple of non-fiction posts.
            Yeah, I’m more like you, like “this was awesome!” and less able to dissect. Probably why I enjoy Bart’s reviews so much. 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh, most excellent! I admit that I do hold a level of control over the kids’ reading, but mainly because I don’t want them staring at comics or Lego books too long. Blondie also likes going backwards–reading the tiny chapter books that are now good challenges for the twins. I’ve got to remind her to read “real” books–aka, novels that fit her level. Otherwise, though, I’m all for her reading all the things! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was an veteran reader of comics — both British and American — Sunday strips, Classics Illustrated and so on when I was growing up, and it didn’t harm me, as you can gather! I draw the line at tv animated cartoons, though, 90% of the ones now available are mind-numbingly awful, in my opinion, and even some of the Pixar-type cinema films, despite their art and wit, are ultimately as frothy as a saccharine-enriched milkshake. (The likes of Toy Story and Up however have real heart, and Studio Ghibli, even with some ho-hum releases, has produced perennial classics that I’d recommend for repeated viewings.)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ha! True, you seem to be doin’ okay. 🙂 Oh we have no Netflix or any streaming service, so the kids are “stuck” with whatever we show them. 🙂 We’re often sharing the 80s cartoons WE loved as kids, because yeah–the new stuff out there is ridiculously saccharine. (DinoTrux. UGH.) Some new films are quite fun–the first Lego movie’s a hoot, the Lego Batman movie is hilARious, the How to Train Your Dragon movies aren’t bad at all. But on the whole my kids haven’t cottoned to Disney much. Oh they ADORE Wall-E, and….um…Planes Fire and Rescue? Can’t really think of another one they enjoy repeated views of…

        (They hate Frozen. Mwa ha ha!)

        Liked by 1 person

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