I start reading Bookworm in my childhood bedroom, unaware of how perfect the setting is.
All around me lies the backdrop of my imagination – the library that raised me – and by the end of the first chapter, I’d laughed and wept and texted three of my friends to find out if they’d read Lucy Mangan’s bookish memoir yet.
There’s so much to love about Bookworm.
Told with a reflective, self-deprecating humour, it’s the story of growing up via books, of learning what we like through words, discovering crushes in the form of characters (oh Dickon, you dark-horse), not to mention how reading can make us who we are.
Plus, despite being a memoir, it’s so much more than just a potted history of what Mangan did or didn’t enjoy reading whilst growing up.
Mangan explores each book and their context, re-examining them from the perspective of an adult and parent. This leads to some deftly examined and insightful literary criticism as well as some fairly entertaining revelations. An early example of this is her exploration of children’s illustrators – their influencers and legacy. Until now, my understanding of classic children’s illustration it was simply Beatrix Potter, Quentin Blake, and various other books about anthropomorphised woodland creatures – so to learn about Greenaway, Caldecott, Sendak, Shepard, and Kerr (among many many others) was thrilling. On the other hand, discovering that Barbar contains a dubious colonialist messages made me spit out my tea (my parents determinedly hung Barbar posters on my wall for most of my childhood).
Bookworm also maps a journey you can’t help but compare to your own. The parent who instilled you with a love of reading. The books that made you feel awe and excitement. The books that scared or shocked you.
Recollections of how Mangan’s father gave her books, reminded me of my own dad reading me adventure stories – most set at sea – such Swallows and Amazons, the Green Sailors, and Moonfleet.
Mangan gravitated to stories that fit into her own, quiet, lovely life – joyfully finding ‘predictable, familiar, and safe world[s]’ in Enid Blyton, Louisa May Alcott, the Shoe books, all the way through to Judy Bloom. She liked the idea of other people having adventures, so that she didn’t have to. I, on the other hand, fell in love with the whimsical, adventurous, mind-bending and absurd. Writers like Milne and Dahl were the tip of a very big iceberg, and I longed to be as daring, brilliant, and defiant as the characters I found between the pages.
Because of the way it encourages you to travel through your own novel upbringing, Bookworm is incredibly thought-provoking.
Almost triggering. Albeit in a good way.
A somewhat bitter-sweet, heart-warming, and heart-breaking way.
Because from the first page, Bookworm took me back to nights spent hiding beneath bedcovers, using torch light to crack through the next chapter (or four or five or ten). They make me recall my mother’s irritation at having to come upstairs to find me for lunch because I’d fallen too deep into a book to hear anyone calling. I can laugh now at how I carried books to parties too – just in case I could slip away for ten minutes. To this day I count characters amongst my oldest friends: Alan Beckett and David Balfour, Matilda Wormwood, Bonnie and Sylvia, John Trenchard, Hermione Granger, Titty Walker, Roald Dahl’s Red Riding Hood – these were people I aspired to be, longed to play with, loved to imagine, made up my own stories about, and who left me with a life-long addiction to the literary.
Mangan conjures up that sense of wonder – the yearning magic – of childhood reading. It’s like receiving a very good, golden dream from the BFI’s trumpet. It’s a feeling I didn’t realise I missed. That sense that anything is possible.
Surrounded by my 28-year-old library, it made me question when I stopped double-checking the back of wardrobes?
When did I stop peeking through curtains at witching hour, half dreading the idea of spotting a giant?
When did the sandy dunes of Poole Harbour stop being my very own Kirrin Island?
My eleventh birthday (when I did not receive an owl) was one of the most disappointing of my life – was it then?
Bookworm filled me with such nostalgia, I began to question whether books had lost a little of their enchantment as I’ve grown older.
Fortunately, I don’t think that’s true. And I don’t think that’s the message Mangan is trying to get across either.
Bookworm highlights just how open and receptive we are as kids. We let ourselves believe in magic. We hold onto impossibilities. We’re allowed to travel anywhere, be anyone, live a thousand lives. Mangan illustrates how childhood readers find the spaces into which they can pour their hopes and dreams like water.
It also shows that we don’t lose the wonder just because we grow up. Why do we feel nostalgic? Because whether it’s a comforting, cosy booknook reads or whirligig thought experiments in dystopian fantasy, our books are lifeboats on bad days, gemstones on dull days, companions whilst travelling, dependable friends and inspiring brainteasers. They teach us to make sense of the world as kids – as adults.
Warm, charming and entirely relatable, Bookworm is – as you might expect – the perfect book for the bookish.
It is also a gentle reminder that the magic we experienced as children really isn’t that far away.
Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading is available on Amazon in Paperback (£7.91), on Kindle (£7.99), and Audible (£13.12).