Saturday, 15 October 2011

Books about books

I have just returned from a workshop in Glasgow, the first of a series, with the title "Reading fictions". The title is a bit misleading, but the subject was children's books in which a book or several books or reading in general play a significant role. One of the participants claimed that all children's books (and perhaps all books) are about the power and joy of reading, in which case there isn't much to discuss. But we tried to be more specific than that, to see how books are introduced within other books, and what readers can make out of it. There were many interesting things that we identified, for instance, the idea of books and reading as something forbidden, something to hide from others. I won't go into detail because it was just a very preliminary discussion, but, as with many similar focused topics, once you have started searching for them in literature you cannot help finding them everywhere. A participant pointed out that we hardly remembered Richmal Crompton's William as an avid reader, whereupon she read a longish quote about William hiding in the attic with his favourite snacks and a book. My own reflection is that we hardly remember Tom Sawyer as an avid reader, but all the games he plays with his friends are based on books.

Among the books we discussed yesterday was The Book Thief, quite a predictable example when you think of it. Some of my favourite examples are:

The neverending story, by Michael Ende. The protagonist steals a book from a bookshop and reads it until he is literally drawn into the story.

Seven-day magic, by Edward Eager. The children take a book from a library and it turns out to be magic, however for a week only since they must return it to the library.

Elidor, by Alan Garner. The children find a magical book in which they are portrayed. (Garner also has The Stone Book)

The dark is rising, by Susan Cooper. Another magical book.

Not to forget Harry Potter and all the important books encountered there - and I guess we don't think of Harry as an avid reader.

There are scores of books in which other books are mentioned or alluded to, and I have always wondered (and occasionally written about) whether authors are trying to legitimise their own position ("I am in good company"), or guide the readers ("That's the way you should understand my story - it is based on..."), or invite readers to share their own superiority ("Have you read and recognised all titles mentioned?"). All writers do this, from Bridge to Terabithia to Twilight. Sometimes they mention "the assistant pigkeeper", and if you get the allusion, good for you, and if not - you still know it must be a book. Books that Jerusha Abbot realises she has not read. The book that the three March sisters use to set up their own trials.

And also characters who are illiterate and still happy. Pippi Longstocking has all kinds of exciting things in her house, but not a single book. Charlie Bucket has no books. Mary Lennox receives book parcels, but remains indifferent and prefers to be in the garden. The Moomins have no books (although Moomnpappa writes one). What are the authors trying to tell us? I cannot imagine that Astrid Lindgren was against literacy.


anton said...

Pippi doesn't need books, because she is a storyteller herself.
I can't recall Lyra reading anything until "Lyra's Oxford", either.

anton said...

Except, of course, when her dad forces her to read the bible.

Maria Nikolajeva said...

The majority of children's book characters don't read because they are too busy to save the world

Mr Pond said...

Funke's Inkheart always springs to my mind in these discussions, which is a book about books about reading books about books, I think. Though Dahl's Matilda is another good example, and probably gets the award for Most Shameless Quotation of Dylan Thomas in a Children's Book. Also, Lang's Prince Prigio and the far underrated Pantouflia books merit attention, I think. And can everyone say: "Pratchett!"

I wonder--is it just a trope in children's literature? We put it in there because it's what goes into children's books? (Although Where the Wild Things Are may throw a spanner into this line or argumentation, as he completely leaves out books and just goes straight into other worlds.)

Or is it perhaps that children's authors were at one point the child that sat indoors and read books, and they're drawing--knowingly or not--on their own memories and constructs of childhood?

Fascinating subject...

Maria Nikolajeva said...

Inkheart, yes of course, thanks! But Where the Wild Things Are features books that Max uses for anything but reading, which speaks volumes.