Review: Bookworm, Lucy Mangan

This was one of those rare and wonderful books that I had the vague feeling might actually have been written with me in mind.  I followed journalist and author Lucy Mangan’s Children’s Book Corner column in the Guardian years ago, so it was with delight that I discovered that she had written a whole book on the topic.  Tracing from her babyhood to the present day (‘For the true bookworm, life doesn’t really begin until you get hold of your first book’), in Bookworm, Mangan both relives her own life in books while also providing a running commentary on the history of children’s literature.  Somehow Mangan has always seemed to understand that being a Bookworm is more than a mere hobby, but rather a way of being, a lifestyle and even at times borderline social handicap.  Nostalgic, restorative, reassuring, this warm-hearted and witty memoir celebrates all that is wonderful about childhood reading.

As Mangan recalls ‘hiding a book on your lap to get yourself through breakfast’ and ‘getting hit on the head by footballs in the playground because a game had sprung up around you while you were off in Cair Paravel’, I found myself nodding along in vehement agreement, but when she asked ‘Was your first crush on Dickon instead of Johnny Depp?’ I actually cheered aloud – I really thought that one had been just me.  Being a bookworm can often seem a solitary occupation, but in Bookworm, Mangan illustrates how books have the power to unify us as few other experiences can.  Mangan describes reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar to her young son alongside ‘the ghost of [her] toddler self and the spirit of [her] thirtysomething dad in a shared delight’.  Books cross continents, class divides and generations – reading truly is an incredibly portable brand of magic.

There is something very particular too about childhood reading.  Bookworm harks back to that Golden era where life barely intruded on reading time.  Reading really was like oxygen, to be gulped down greedily whenever five spare minutes arose.  A recurrent morning problem for me growing up was my tendency to get caught up in what I was reading when I was supposed to be getting dressed or brushing my teeth, leading to serious recriminations when I was not ready for school at the agreed upon time.  Then there was the panic about making sure I had enough books to make it through an entire school day – I negotiated it down to no more than four in my school-bag.  Just in case of emergencies.  Yet, while some of these habits remain with me to this day – I can still be delayed out the door in the morning if the drama is at a crux point, I rarely travel without at least two books and a Kindle – the ability to fully immerse within a fictional world is not the same as it was during childhood.  While reading, my childhood self became quite literally deaf to the world; the teacher could call my name as often as she liked, the doorbell could ring, I knew and cared nothing about it.  Adult me has lost that ability and reading Bookworm, I felt nostalgic for the experience.

Despite the decade or so difference in age, Mangan and I appear to have crossed over surprisingly (or unsurprisingly?) closely in our childhood reading.  Like her, I am a huge fan of Judith Kerr from The Tiger Who Came To Tea through to When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and despite not being hugely fond of cats, I do rather adore Mog.  Many other old friends also make appearances over the course of the memoir – Shirley Hughes, Maurice Sendak, Quentin Blake, Raymond Briggs, the list goes on and on, even including some of the more obscure titles such as Tottie: The Story of a Doll’s House, a book I loved but which nobody I have ever met has read.  Again like Mangan however, I too never could take to Barbar the Elephant but yet, as Mangan points out ‘the bookworm’s prime directive: any book is better than no book.  Always.’  I remember reading a Barbar book in that exact spirit – it was all that was available at the time.

Bookworm made me realise again that gaining the ability to read gives you power over your own life.  We recognise and applaud this in terms of social mobility and education, but I had not considered it in terms of growing up.  Being transported by a book is the first independent travel I ever made.  Mangan contemplates reading on both the physical side (more shared happy memories as she recalls BBC’s Look and Learn with Wordy and the Magic E) and the horror of arriving at school and realising that you have to interact with confusing children all day rather than being able to mind your business at home with your books.  As Mangan describes, unlike with the Hungry Caterpillar, there will be no magical transformation – ‘it’s bookworm, not bookbutterfly’.  At least you have the books to grant some form of padding against life’s early traumas.

Of course, not every book can be recalled with fond and fuzzy nostalgia.  Returning to bygone beloved books now as a parent, Mangan expresses wry amusement at the lack of ‘satisfactory narrative resolution’ within the Mr Men books and a certain discomfort with some of Roald Dahl’s sadism.  Yet, despite her clear disappointment at revisiting Enid Blyton and discovering her practically unreadable, I admired Mangan’s dedicated defence of Blyton’s place in the canon.  I am in the bracket of children banned from Blyton, less from ideological reasons as much as the fact that my mother felt she had missed out on good books in her own childhood by reading Blyton and didn’t want the mistake perpetuated.  Although I did read Malory Towers, I don’t have strong associations with her myself but I can see how for many, Blyton was ‘the gateway drug’ on the bookworm journey.  It’s just that for me, I think it was Noel Streatfeild.

There is so much more to Bookworm though than one woman’s retrospective on her reading.  Mangan explores how reading promotes empathy, with the example of how her own repeated reads of The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark helped her as a non-nocturnal-phobe to understand why others might be afraid of this.  Quoting philosopher and psychologist Riccardo Manzotti, she describes how reading and rereading gives us ‘both locks and the keys with which to open them’.  Mangan considers how re-reading deepens the relationship with a story, with the area of life which the story relates to and ultimately an improved understanding of yourself too.  The child who reads becomes the adult who thinks.

Of particular interest to me was Mangan’s frequent mentions of encountering and appropriating unfamiliar vocabulary through reading.  She notes astutely one of the wonderful elements of Richmal Crompton’s Just William stories is the fact that they make use of interesting vocabulary which makes no attempt to dumb itself down for its readers.  During my time as a teacher, I was often shocked by how limited the vocabulary of my pupils could be (oddly, when I taught a class where English was predominantly the second language, their vocabulary tended to be better) but more than that, the way in which the drive was to pander to this rather than target it was quite astonishing.  I suggested a topic on Bill Naughton’s fantastic story Seventeen Oranges and although we did do it, colleagues insisted on using the simplified version re-written for non-English speakers rather than the original.  Yet, vocabulary deficiency is recognised as a major education barrier for children of all ages.  If a seven year-old child is being protected from a simple story about stolen oranges, the notion that we can be surprised a few years later when they struggle to read an exam paper is ridiculous.  Bluntly, you need to get your kids reading and you need to allow them to run into the occasional unusual word when they do.

What is interesting is how many of these ‘classics’ which Mangan loved in the 1970s and which I loved with equal fervour in the 1990s were written decades and decades before either of us were born.  Even The Family From One End Street (which has a special place in my heart as I read it with my grandmother), celebrated by Mangan as the first ever book to depict working-class children as heroes, was published way back in 1937.  Yet when I look in the children’s section Waterstone’s now, I see shelf upon shelf of Captain Underpants and generic Young Adult franchises.  If I want the books that loved, I seem to have to go digging.  Is this again the urge to ‘protect’ from material that is too challenging?  I’m not dismissing newer releases – I know how much former pupils enjoyed David Walliams, Horrid Henry and Diary of a Wimpy Kid, I just wonder a little about where some of the others have gone.

I suppose another issue may be the rise of the term ‘problematic’.  Mangan rolls her eyes at a parent who mentioned that she would not be buying her children any of the Narnia books because of the ‘Christianity in them’.  Never mind that they are lovely and funny stories with fantastic characters (Reepicheep!  Puddleglum!  The DLF!) but the idea that a child just might pick up on an allegory means that they are to be considered off-limits.  And like Mangan, a lot of that escaped me anyway when I was reading it for the first time.  Even a recent explanation of the parable at the heart of Prince Caspian was brand new information for me as at the time I just liked the story.  Your child is not going to be brainwashed by Christianity by reading Narnia.  Just let them get on with it.  Little House on the Prairie is another series that seems to be at risk from being branded ‘problematic’.  When I was little, attempts to lend out our copies to friends were met with failure because the death of Willy the pig proved too traumatic (personally, I found it unpleasant but not exactly scarring) but these days the focus is on the depictions of race and land acquisition.  I would agree that these areas do prompt discussion.  But what’s wrong with that?  Again, it’s a lock and a key to understanding that these issues exist in the world.  I will never agree that shutting a book away and pretending it does not exist is the right way of handling a contentious message.

There is something very particular about the passionate defense you can feel about the books you loved in childhood – I can feel seriously riled if I hear someone express disdain for Prairie or Streatfeild or indeed any of the many, many, many books that I galloped through as a child, turned back to the beginning and then galloped through yet again.  Mangan relates her belated discovery of Roger Lancelyn Green’s accounts of mythology and the melancholic feeling that although they are wonderful, she has arrived at them too late for them to form part of her identity in the way that the books she read at the time did.  I sympathised as I actually did read several of Green’s Greek mythology books and not only did his retelling of the night of Hercules’ conception bring up confusing feelings, but I was reusing the names from The Luck of Troy in my own story-writing for the next four years.

Skipping across the classics, Mangan gives potted histories around various of their publication alongside her personal recollections.  I skipped Alice in Wonderland as a child and feel quite firmly that it is Too Late Now but appreciate how significant is within the canon as a whole.  I did read most of Frances Hodgson Burnett however and it was reassuring to not only hear from another fan but also someone who thought that bun scene in A Little Princess was perhaps a bit ‘much’.  It’s strange, a few years ago we were picking films to watch and a friend of a friend explained at great length how A Little Princess was her all-time favourite film, she had watched it dozens of times, was obsessed with it still as an adult and then was utterly astonished to discover it had also been a book.  The bookworm in me was horrified.  That being said, I think that The Secret Garden is both a better book and a better film (1992 version).

It is likely obvious by now that I read Bookworm making copious notes and having numerous moments of rapturous recognition (Mangan thought that What Katy Did At School was the best Katy book? Me too!  Thought Starlight Barking was the most bonkers sequel you’ve ever read in your life? Me too!  Devastated by the ending of Charlotte’s Web?  Me too!  Reading Goodnight Mister Tom changed you for life?  Me too!) but it would take too long to list every single one here.  What was particularly poignant though was reflecting again about this chapter in my life with the distance of adulthood.  I am in the slow process of reacquiring my childhood books from my parents’ garage and attic, something which has prompted some re-evaluation over which books are worth carrying forward and which need to take the trip to the charity shop.  More than that though, there’s the painful lesson that no matter what I would wish, one cannot force a book on another person.

Growing up, I used to spent huge amounts of time trying to pick out books that I thought my cousins would enjoy.  They never read them.  The fault was not with them, but with my own inability to realise that not everyone is a bookworm-in-waiting.  It’s the classic gift-giving trap – don’t give someone something just because you think it’s worth having.  This counts double when it comes to reading.  Just because I think a book is worthy or unworthy has no bearing on whether someone else will enjoy it.  I do think this is something I am getting better at – I have bit my tongue when a reluctant reader told me proudly how much he had enjoyed The Boy in Striped Pyjamas even though that is a book which offends me on every level.  As Mangan points out, being a good bookworm does not make you necessarily a good reader.  What do I know about what another person will enjoy?  The joy of being a childhood bookworm is that you are set free to roam an imaginary landscape at your will.  My own mother bought me many books, read to me and funded many of my own later purchases and reading is a big part of our relationship (I bought her a copy of this book for Mother’s Day this year), but I was also allowed (most of the time) to make my own choices and it is important that all children have the same opportunity.

As Mangan points out, while being a bookworm may make social interaction more confusing, it gives back a heck of a lot more than it takes.  While at primary school, I was frequently taken out of class to show visitors what exactly I was reading, something which I found confusing until I became a teacher and realised how much of an oddity I must have been.  Reading really does please teachers.  It also does grant a facility with language that makes coursework and exams are an awful lot easier, not to mention writing covering letters in later life.  My own dear grandmother never had a great deal of faith in the English education system but she did concede that given that I had read a lot, I was at least ‘trained for something.’  Reading Bookworm filled me with such joy in revisiting so many of my early favourites but whereas other writers might have been satisfied with a nostalgic countdown of books they loved, Mangan has instead provided a battle cry for reading itself.  Bookworm is a book to contemplate, treasure and revisit, to remind oneself that to be a bookworm is a gift and to look on each new book as an adventure.  More than that, when we return to the books we loved as children, we are as close as we ever can be to our own past selves – for the bookworm, is this not the most magical thing of all?

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I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Bookworm by Lucy Mangan
Published by Random House on March 1st 2018
Genres: Literary Criticism, Books & Reading, Biography & Autobiography, Personal Memoirs, Young Adult Fiction, Books & Libraries, Women, Literary, Children's & Young Adult Literature, General, Juvenile Nonfiction, Literary Criticism & Collections, History, Social History, Humor
Pages: 336
ISBN: 9781448191222

This post contains affiliate links which you can use to purchase the book. If you buy the book using that link, I will receive a small commission from the sale.

7 thoughts on “Review: Bookworm, Lucy Mangan

    1. It’s funny though – thanks to third party sellers, it’s easier to find a lot of books than I remember it being when I was growing up. I do really recommend this book though, it’s such a warm-hearted read and really well-informed about the power of reading. Let me know if you do get round to reading it 🙂

  1. I am buying a copy of this right now. I have heard a bit about it but was waiting for a review that made me feel like I absolutely had to have it and yours has done that. I can relate to so much that you wrote about in your post. I was just thinking the other day about how I don’t get as totally absorbed in a book as I used to. No longer do I do my chores with a book in one hand. I put it down and get on with what needs to be done. More practical, yes, but I miss that total immersion. Some of the books you mention having been discussed in the book aren’t ones I have read but many are and I am sure I am going to end up hunting down books I missed out on so my daughter can read them now.

    I have a lot of thoughts about the Little House books and the reaction people have to them these days. Trying to put modern sensibilities on books that were written in the past is ridiculous and defeats one of the purposes of reading. Don’t we read to learn? To understand how people used to think?

    And yes, Dickon was wonderful. He made my little ten-year-old heart beat a little faster.

    1. Hooray! So glad to hear I’ve managed to share the joy of this book with someone else! It’s interesting – I saw some other reviews on Goodreads which marked the book down because they (the reviewer) hadn’t read that many of the books Mangan mentions – this seemed kind of unfair. You’re never going to have 100% overlap with someone else’s reading. The great thing about this book is that it’s not just about the individual books, it’s the experience of reading in childhood as a whole. I really hope you read it and I really hope you like it!
      PS – And yes, I completely and utterly agree that Little House relates to a different time and condemning it for that puts us in the ‘refusing to learn from history and being doomed to repeat it’ category.
      PPS – I had no idea that Dickon was the first love of so many other readers – I really thought it was just me!

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