Bookworm – A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan – Only for children?

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This book is very dedicated to the childhood books and some young adult books that speak strongly of a certain era. The author uses her recital of books as a framework on which to hang many details about her family and growing up as the ultimate bookish child and teenager. There are many anecdotes connected with certain books and reasons why they were so central to her life, and the life of her son who is beginning to appreciate stories. It is in many ways a book that maintains the interest of the reader of itself, and Mangan is certainly an engaging writer, but it is a little self consciously clever. It is honest and carefully written, gauged to recall many favourites for others to recognise. Those who are book obsessed will find much to recognise both in terms of individual books and the urge to read them at all costs, and it is here that much of the humour emerges.

‘People say that life is the thing but I prefer reading’ is the quote from Logan Pearsall Smith that Mangan uses to open her life story. From her earliest days, even recounting her parents’ backgrounds, Mangan makes it clear that her first and sole obsession has been books, even in the face of disapproval from her mother. Her father’s quiet presentation of books on a regular basis is of vital importance, beyond illness and childhood itself. There is exaggeration (her father having ‘800 siblings’ as befits his catholic background) and prodigious feats of memory as she discusses her first nursery experiences. Thus picture books are recalled, first story books and bedtime stories. I am not sure that anyone’s memory of individual books devoured at such an early age would be so good, but I appreciated that determination to read at the expense of a social or even a family life. There is a chapter on the Enid Blyton stage, with an interesting view of that writer’s amazing output and the resulting quality of her books. There is much to be learnt here about children’s books of the twentieth century and how well they have survived in the new world of gender and race equality. I certainly recognised the mixture of feelings about Coolidge’s “Katy” books, for example, and while I missed out on the “Sweet Valley High” craze I did recognise many other books which were important at certain stages.

I suppose that I have two problems with this book. This is a memoir of childhood reading, and while I agree that this implies that children’s books may well feature heavily, I am not sure that someone so book obsessed would not have got more early experience of adult novels. Bearing in mind those pre Harry Potter days, children’s and young people’s books were less common and expensive, whereas adult books were often left lying around even in non book obsessed houses. Murder mysteries, romances, sagas, were to be found everywhere, and certainly in greater numbers in libraries than gripping children’s books. So why was  Mangan never caught with inappropriate advanced reading matter? The other problem I have with this book may well be an editorial decision, as a list of books covered in each chapter is at the end of the book. Sadly (and frustratingly) the authors are not listed alongside, so any checking back has to be done in each chapter. I enjoyed much about this book, and it was a treat to read about another bookworm, but the many stories of Mangan’s family are familiar from her other writing, and I was surprised how few adult titles were mentioned. I enjoyed this book about books, and it is a useful addition to that particular genre, but it could have been more satisfying.

I hope I don’t sound too grumpy about this book, because I did enjoy it in many ways. I suppose not every child was allowed to read adult books quite so freely as I was! I have had quite a busy week of it so although I have some books and ready to review, I have not got round to all of them yet. There are plenty of good books to come!

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7 thoughts on “Bookworm – A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan – Only for children?

  1. I haven’t read this one, and mainly because I spent most of my post-picture book/early-Blyton reading life reading adult books too. In fact, I can’t say children’s books ever did much for me, with a few exceptions like Wind in the Willows and the Anne books, and I was fortunate enough to be released from the children’s section of the library at an early age and allowed to roam freely through adult literature, lightly guided by my older sister. So I don’t really have much nostalgia for children’s literature on the whole.

    1. Likewise, my mother was so occupied in the library that she did not notice me free ranging round the adult section! My parents took the robust view that if I could read it and it was in the library I wouldn’t come to harm…even though a pre- teen proposed lend of “Forever Amber” did alarm an aunt! My parents in law bought me Wind in the Willows, but a long time after my childhood…and I was not impressed!

      1. Ah I love Wind in the Willows, but I often think these things depend on the age you first read them. It’s one reason I don’t really try to read any of the children’s books I missed – somehow I’ve lost my ability to appreciate them the way kids can… 🙂

  2. My parents did not interfere with my reading unless they thought it would give me nightmares so the 2-3 times my mother did object to something I had found in a library or helped myself to were quite memorable – as one would think it would be to Mangan. On the other hand, she may be saving those anecdotes for a later volume? I saw this book when I was in England in April and now wish I had bought it but had become overladen. Will check if it is available in the U.S.

    1. I wondered if it was available in the U.S. If so, there is quite a lot about a very British home life; it will be interesting to see what is made of that – not that it will be a problem I imagine. It will also be interesting to see how much you think of Little Women and What Katy Did; the latter not being so popular here now!

  3. That’s a really interesting point, because I’m an almost exact contemporary of Mangan’s and by the time I was 14 I was working my way through Ian Fleming, Georgette Heyer, Agatha Christie, Tanith Lee and all sorts of others. Maybe she wanted to keep it to children’s books in childhood reading. If you think about it, though, if she was reading that much she must have been reading more than Katy and pony books!

  4. Interesting point about the childhood vs. adult books — I was child in the 1970s and we did not have nearly the selection of children’s and young adult books available now, the difference is rather mind boggling. I was really limited to the selection at the school and public library in suburban Detroit, and we didn’t even have a bookstore nearby — I think we mostly bought books at the school book fair! I’d never even heard of Enid Blyton until I was older and her book are really hard to come by in American libraries.

    I also moved pretty quickly into the adult section by the time I was in middle and high school. I remember reading Agatha Christie and Gone with the Wind at a fairly young age (I may have seen the movie version first) but I was a library aide in school and read Rosemary’s Baby and Stephen King. Of course the terrible Flowers in the Attic was all the rage about that time as well.

    Still, I think I’d enjoy this book but will wait for the paperback or until it finally hits the library shelves.

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