Monday, December 31, 2018

Book Review: Bookworm by Lucy Mangan

One of the joys of visiting the parental home is the opportunity to raid the parental bookshelf. Usually I either come away with four-five books in my arms or just give up after an hour of browsing. Too many books, too little time during the visit. 

But this time around, I had barely started digging when I found what I immediately knew to be treasure. I hadn’t even heard about the book before, but its gorgeous cover would have drawn me in anywhere. Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan, it said. I decided to forgive the rather pedestrian title and read on.

Reader, it really WAS treasure I had discovered. Lucy Mangan writes about a bunch of books she read and enjoyed as a child in England in the seventies and eighties. That sounds a bit boring, doesn’t it? Why would anybody want to read about books that somebody else read thirty years ago, especially when they haven’t even heard of many of the said books?

But Bookworm wasn’t boring at all. Initially, I thought I was enjoying the book so much because of Mangan’s chatty tone and bookish insights. She places the books in context, with stories about the authors and how they came to write that particular book. She is quite funny too - I laughed out aloud several times while reading (startling my family in the process).

But it is much more than that. The book was enjoyable because, as a fellow bookworm who also spent most of her childhood with her nose in books, I completely understood where she was coming from. The actual names of the books don’t matter at all. She’s writing less about the books themselves and more about the pleasure she found in them, the worlds they took her to, the myriad ways they opened her mind. 

“Do we ever manage again to commit ourselves as wholeheartedly and unselfconsciously as we do to the books we read when young? I doubt it,” she says.

Along the way, she also detours into associated areas such as the history of picture books (not even two centuries old, did you know?) and why re-reading is so important for children. 

I admit that, as a reader, I was probably a better fit than usual for this book. The first chapter is an evocative mix of the author’s early memories of being read to by her father, and her own recent experience of reading to her five-year-old son. Since I’m in a similar stage myself right now (my son is almost four and LOVES being read to), I couldn't have NOT enjoyed it. 

Of course, we Indians have a slight advantage in reading this book; thanks to our colonial hangover, many of us have grown up reading books that an Irish girl in London read in the seventies (most notably Enid Blyton books). And of course she mentions many books that have been considered classics for decades now (Alice in Wonderland, The Railway Children, Anne of Green Gables, etc). All of this doesn’t make for much racial diversity, of course - a charge she herself freely admits.

If I have one quibble, it is that she doesn’t write at all about the new books and authors that she and her son must surely be discovering together now. What about Julia Donaldson, I ask. Or Oliver Jeffers? Surely they deserved at least a mention? But no, she sticks firmly to her own childhood. 

I can’t think of a book that I’ve read with so much enjoyment in the recent past. My enjoyment partly had to do with the fact that I knew nothing about the book before reading it, which is rare in the age of Goodreads and Amazon reviews. It felt strange, as if I was heading off on one of the adventures that Mangan's childhood heroes and heroines go on. I didn’t want to ruin the experience, so I deliberately decided not to visit Goodreads to read reviews or even see its rating. I peeked after finishing the book, and I’m glad to note that its rating is currently 4.12. I’m planning to bump it up a bit with my five-star review. :)
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