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Review: The Boy Who Loved Books, John Sutherland

John Sutherland grew up fatherless after his father died in an aviation accident while training for combat in World War II.  (Did you know they allowed a 5% mortality rate in training for war?  No?  I didn’t either.)  He grew up virtually motherless as well, since his mother was determined to live her life as she saw fit, whether that involved living in Argentina, sleeping with American soldiers, or leaving John to relatives on a regular basis.  Throughout his childhood, John sought refuge in one thing, books.  He lived and breathed the classics, ignoring his assigned work for his own personal choices.  When he got older, John also found solace in alcohol, and the two remained standbys for much of his life.

I’m a bit torn about this one.  I think I liked the concept more than the execution.  I love the idea of a memoir about someone’s life in books, and this one promised that books saved Sutherland’s life twice.  I didn’t really get much of that from the book, though, and overall it was much more just a life story than a life story in books.  There are plenty of literary references, sure, and he does mention what he’s reading at times, but I think the entire book was hampered by the fact that I didn’t find John’s life particularly interesting otherwise and, more importantly, I didn’t really like John.

I can’t understand the pain of growing up without a parent, much less the pain of growing up pretty much without either of them, so I can’t speak on personal experience.  I do think it’s understandable that he would struggle emotionally as a result.  But some of his attitudes just failed to match mine so spectacularly that it made it hard for me to relate to him.  As an example, John rarely read books for school on purpose.  He hated assigned reading so, even though he was perfectly capable of understanding assigned texts and doing really well in school, he generally performed poorly on pretty much every exam he was ever given.  This attitude follows him throughout his childhood, even though he must see that his grandparents and even his mother struggle along on a rock bottom basic education.  He has opportunities – his mother pays for him to go to great schools – and he just throws them away.  I’ve never really understood people who do this.

The worst part about it is that he then goes on to become a professor, just because there are so many positions and so few takers!  It seemed wrong to me that someone who mostly disdained school throughout his life can then go on to have the best job in the whole system.  I shouldn’t be so harsh, though, as people can change, and his eventual university education does leave a mark on him.  I could more easily understand his willingness to bury himself in drink, but I was glad when he gave it up.

The other big problem I had was with John’s mother, who I think was the reason in large part he struggled through childhood.  She more or less completely ignores him, pawning him off on relatives and friends, especially when she has a man around.  She pays his way through life but seems hardly ever emotionally invested; it’s clear that John adores her but that seems mostly based around her beauty and her determination to have her own way, even at the expense of his own happiness.  I can see that up to a point, but abandoning your child for three years while you go to live in Argentina?  I don’t see that so much.

What I did enjoy was the historical background and the brilliant depiction of Britain throughout John’s younger years.  He talks about things that were already disappearing, like quiet times fishing with his grandfather, and the history of Colchester (the town he mostly grows up in) and its schools.  He’s undoubtedly a very good writer and I think he could pull off a novel if he tried, especially if he set it in the places he knows best.

The Boy Who Loved Books definitely had issues, but Sutherland is a good writer.  If you can ignore the aspects I had problems with, I think this would be a good choice.

I am an Amazon Associate. I borrowed this book from my local library.


9 comments to Review: The Boy Who Loved Books, John Sutherland

  • You know, I have become increasingly wary of so-called “literary memoirs”, mostly because I find they focus far too little on the bookish aspect and are instead just memoirs where the person happens to have done some reading. I want the focus to be on the books! It seems to me like publishers (and writers?) realize there is a large market for books about people who love books, so they use that to hook people in but are slightly disingenuous about the actual slant of the book in question.

  • john sutherland

    thank you for this perceptive commentary. One writes books like this for oneself, I think, but it’s always a pleasure when they’re read by others—even when, as here, it’s not entirely a bunch of roses thrown one’s way. JS

  • I am not sure I would like this book. The fact that John was basically a slacker for most of his life, but prefers to think he was self-directed, really bothers me a loT. I also don’t think I would deal with the alcoholism situation well. I agree with Steph about literary memoirs. At times, they are not all that they are cracked up to be.
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  • I like the concept of the book, too, but it sounds like his attitude was pretty warped. I’m intrigued enough, that I would consider giving it a try, though.

  • What university was he teaching in?!
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  • Hmmm. I’m a bit on the fence about this one now. The premise does sound GREAT, but if his life isn’t particularly interesting and it’s not heavily about books, it gives me pause. I suspect I’d have troubles with the same things you did.

    Maybe if it’s a cheap e-book. lol
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  • This book looked so good to me. I love the cover and the title and the idea of a book about a person who’s life is described as a life in books. After all, books have been such a central factor in my development as a person. But it sounds like this boy definitely had problems; problems that books couldn’t even begin to fix. Still, it does sound like an interesting story and from your review, I think it would be safe to assume that Sutherland definitely has some potential. I’ll probably skip this but maybe pick up something else by Sutherland in the future if he writes something else.

  • It does sound interesting. I wonder if I’d like John’s character.
    Great review!
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