Lucy Mangan: Bookworm.
A memoir of childhood reading
“[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.”