Spufford, Francis 1964–
Spufford, Francis 1964–
PERSONAL: Born in 1964.
ADDRESSES: Home—Cambridge, England. Agent—c/o Editorial Department, Faber and Faber Ltd, 3 Queen Square, London WC1N 3AU, England. E-mail—f. [email protected]
CAREER: Writer, editor, and radio broadcaster. Anglia Ruskin University, United Kingdom, fellow, 2005–06; regular broadcaster on the British Broadcasting Corporation's BBC Radio 3 and Radio 4.
(Editor) The Chatto Book of Cabbages and Kings: Lists in Literature, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 1989.
(Editor) The Chatto Book of the Devil: With an Introduction by Himself, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 1992.
(Editor) Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book, Orion (London, England), 1994.
(Editor with Jenny Uglow) Cultural Babbage: Technology, Time, and Invention, Faber (London, England), 1996.
I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1997.
The Child that Books Built: A Life in Reading (memoir), Metropolitan Books (New York, NY), 2002.
Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin, Faber and Faber (London, England), 2003.
SIDELIGHTS: "When men first learned to write, the first things they wrote were not epics but lists," according to Tony Tanner in his Times Literary Supplement review of Francis Spufford's The Chatto Book of Cabbages and Kings: Lists in Literature. This 1989 volume, which Spufford edited, examines the function and place of lists in literature. The result is an "imaginative and endlessly delightful anthology," Tanner declared, while proclaiming Spufford "a fond and intelligent defender of lists." In the volume, Spufford includes examples of lists that range from the ships named in an epic by Homer, to who begat whom in the Bible, to an inventory within song lyrics written by American composer Cole Porter, to the hundreds of different ways in which two characters describe a third as a fool in a novel by Francois Rabelais, the great French satirist. Peter Levi in the Spectator found the anthology to be "an extremely funny and learned assembly of lists." Lists "are the stuff and nonsense of life, an expression of our assurance that we have the world in hand," asserted London Review of Books contributor Walter Nash.
In the 1992 volume The Chatto Book of the Devil: With an Introduction by Himself, Spufford looks at the ways in which the character and manifestations of Satan and the psychology of evil have been presented in literature. He includes abstracts from a variety of authors who have written about the devil through the ages. Among these are selections by John Milton, Dante Alighieri, Faust, Shelley, and C.S. Lewis; reports on witchcraft and demonic attacks and sightings from the 1600s; the Freudian analysis of a young, depression-prone painter; and even the lyrics from a blues song by Robert Johnson. Kevin Jackson, in his Times Literary Supplement assessment, noted: "Spufford is good at ferreting out oddities." Valentine Cunningham, reviewing the volume in the Observer, found that Spufford's work gives "some idea of just how much our tradition has been possessed by Satan and his legions of darkness." The Chatto Book of the Devil demonstrates how the devil has been used as a device to explain people's "dark inner voices" and temptations, Cunningham added, also remarking upon Spufford's adroit use of irony in the book's subtitles and introduction.
Spufford's 1996 work, Cultural Babbage: Technology, Time, and Invention illustrates how technology, inventions, and science have influenced life, society and culture, literature, and the humanities since the eighteenth century. Co-edited with Jenny Uglow, the collection of idiosyncratic, eclectic essays was called "broad-minded" and "a welcome tonic" by Tobias Jones in his review for the Spectator. The book's title and some of its essays refer to Charles Babbage, who some believe came close to inventing the world's first computer in the 1830s. Some of the essays describe how the languages of artists, writers, and scientists have shaped each other and how scientific and architectural advances have had unusual philosophical offshoots. Cultural Babbage shows how "the artistic and political worlds have never been insulated against science," Jones concluded. "This book … inhabits the neglected space between cultural criticism and science writing," argued Andrew Barry in the New Statesman & Society. He summed up Cultural Babbage by stating that it "brings the unstable borders of technology and culture momentarily into focus." Nature contributor Graham Farmelo regarded the collection as "a stimulating and intermittently exhilarating ride."
I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination, Spufford's 1997 book, details the social and private lives of the adventurers (and the women in their lives) who pitted themselves against nature in the Cook, Scott, and Franklin polar expeditions. He also reveals the ultimate needlessness of the quests for the poles and suggests that these ventures provided the British navy with a purpose and function during times when the country was not at war. Several reviewers paid tribute to Spufford's accounts of the effect of Edmund Burke's theory of the sublime (which dealt with the powerful feelings evoked by nature) on attitudes toward polar exploration. Spufford describes the interaction and intermingling between the exploration of ideas and the exploration of earth's geography. Although focusing little on the polar ventures of other nations, I May Be Some Time offers intelligent and complex answers to the question of why men risked and lost their lives for the sake of Arctic exploration, Roz Kaveney pointed out in the New Statesman. The expeditions are refreshingly "treated with neither adulation nor contempt," Kaveney ventured.
The author turns to his own life in the memoir The Child that Books Built: A Life in Reading. In this volume, Spufford traces his love of reading from his first look at a picture book as a child to his decision at thirteen to read the same books as adults; he soon found that he was more enamored with science fiction than with the classics. He also discusses various aspects of reading, such as research that has shown that it has a positive effect on children's minds. A Kirkus Reviews contributor found the book to be "a brilliant personal view of why we read and why we should." James Shapiro, writing in the New York Times Book Review, noted: "It's a brilliant book beautifully written, it's insights hard-earned, filled with stuff that will make you understand a whole lot better your own life in reading."
In Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin, Spufford focuses on British scientific and engineering geniuses, popularly known as "boffins" in England, where they are portrayed as pipe-smoking intellectuals out of touch with day-to-day affairs who often produce less than stellar results. This caricature of scientists is often portrayed in films and books, such as the character of "Q" in the James Bond films. The author covers a wide range of topics, including such failed efforts as the British space program following World War II and modern British successes in such areas as mobile phones, computer games, and the human genome project. New Scientist contributor Roy Herbert noted that "this is first-class writing." Bryan Appleyard, writing in the New Statesman, called Backroom Boys "a fun book." In a review for the Spectator, Montagu Curzon wrote: "Spufford writes with great verve and great skill in transforming a maze of techno-scientific data into a literary form in which the non-scientific reader will not get lost."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Spufford, Francis, The Child that Books Built: A Life in Reading, Metropolitan Books (New York, NY), 2002.
Booklist, November 15, 1997, Patricia Monaghan, review of I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination, p. 538; September 1, 2002, Michael Cart, review of The Child that Books Built: A Life in Reading, p. 22.
Economist, December 13, 1997, review of I May Be Some Time, p. S3.
Guardian Unlimited, November 15, 2003, Steven Rose, review of Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin.
Kirkus Reviews, April 1, 2002, review of The Child that Books Built, p. 1112.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, December 11, 2002, Nancy Pate, review of The Child that Books Built, p. I5327; December 24, 2003, Nancy Page, review of The Child that Books Built.
Library Journal, September 15, 1997, Harold M. Otness, review of I May Be Some Time, p. 89; September 1, 2002, Jeris Cassel, review of The Child that Books Built, p. 176.
London Review of Books, December 7, 1989, Walter Nash, review of The Chatto Book of Cabbages and Kings: Lists in Literature, pp. 23-24; July 18, 1996, Jenny Diski, review of I May Be Some Time, pp. 10-11.
Nature, March 28, 1996, Graham Farmelo, review of Cultural Babbage: Technology, Time and Invention, pp. 299-300.
New Republic, December 23, 2002, Zoe Heller, review of The Child that Books Built, p. 37.
New Scientist, November 1-7, 2003, Roy Herbert, review of Backroom Boys, p. 51.
New Statesman, June 21, 1996, Roz Kavney, review of I May Be Some Time, pp. 47-48; November 10, 2003, Bryan Appleyard, review of Backroom Boys, p. 51.
New Statesman & Society, February 5, 1993, Roz Kaveney, review of The Chatto Book of the Devil, p. 45; March 22, 1996, Andrew Barry, review of Cultural Babbage, p. 39.
New York Times Book Review, February 2, 2003, James Shapiro, review of The Child that Books Built, p. 18.
Observer (London, England), December 3, 1989, review of The Chatto Book of Cabbages and Kings, p. 47; January 31, 1993, Valentine Cunningham, review of The Chatto Book of the Devil, p. 58; June 16, 1996, review of I May Be Some Time, p. 14; June 1, 1997, review of I May Be Some Time, p. 18.
Publishers Weekly, November 3, 1997, review of I May Be Some Time, p. 74; August 12, 2002, review of The Child that Books Built, p. 289.
Spectator, December 2, 1989, Peter Levi, review of The Chatto Book of Cabbages and Kings, p. 38; March 23, 1996, Tobias Jones, review of Cultural Bab-bage, p. 38; April 13, 2002, Judith Flanders, review of The Child that Books Built, p. 53; November 8, 2003, Montagu Curzon, review of Backroom Boys, p. 63.
Times Literary Supplement, February 9, 1990, Tony Tanner, review of The Chatto Book of Cabbages and Kings, p. 150; March 19, 1993, Kevin Jackson, review of The Chatto Book of the Devil: With an Introduction by Himself, p. 32.