Reviews 2017

One Child Reading: My Auto-Bibliography

One Child Reading: My Auto-Bibliography. Margaret Mackey. Edmonton: U of Alberta P, 2016. 509 pages. $60.00 (paperback).

According to Hilary Mantel, "[s]ometimes our books write us." In One Child Reading: My Auto-Bibliography (2016), Margaret Mackey links the sensual and the discursive practice of writing, making the intriguing traffic between books and us the subject of her penetrating work. It is a fifth major book by this acclaimed researcher and educator in the field of children’s and young adult literature and culture.

Exploring a multitude of vibrations produced by beloved childhood readings, Mackey gathers memories of significant and inconsequential texts read in her childhood and re-read in later years, to testify to the powerful hold these readings have had on her rich life as an author and researcher. The decision to reclaim, carefully and critically, those stabilising elements and to create around them a self-narrative, which is at the same time a portrait of Newfoundland and Labrador, the beloved perpetual first places, has proved fertile and exciting. Her auto-bibliography gives access to many mysteries, personal and local, and to many contested arenas informed by rigorous theoretical investigations of literacy, as she says, to a wealth of discourses and registers. Over thirty domestic photographs from her private collection, personal and public drawings, maps and images of book covers – all correlative with the narrative – help anchor locations of her bibliocentric trajectory: her dynamic journey that reached its defining stage at the age of thirteen and a half, when Mackey became an adult reader. Taking us through paths, landmarks, nodes, edges and districts of a reading past, this project is by no means complete. On her website (margaretmackey.ca) Mackey promises to keep adding various multimodal forms and modes of re-creating her childhood materials.

Auto-bibliography presupposes not only expandability but also inventiveness. The remembered and cherished childhood books and networks of their diverse adaptations are put in circulation in Mackey’s curatorial narrative. It consolidates a substantial personal collection that only paradoxically creates a sense of a cohesive arrangement. A reader cannot but feel the real "there-ness" of the books Mackey recollects, but also the allusiveness of their ordering. S/he cannot escape a sense of overwhelming dizziness, a vertigine, as Umberto Eco identifies such a complex phenomenon in the title of his work The Infinity [la vertigine] of Lists. Collections remind always of what they are set to screen: that which in our experience always escapes mastery, but also that which is always tinted by our fear of death. As with any bibliography, One Child Reading operates in this paradoxical territory of the assumed control over the "geography of literacy," of certainty of the value of what Mackey terms "mental compost" (26) used to fertilise cycles of her life, and the excessive incoherence of the always unruly macro and micro-forces of reading experiences. Confronted with these opposing energies, the reader experiences both the pleasure of re/discovery and the dismay at its unavoidable elusiveness.

The goal of Margaret Mackey’s autobiographical narrative is to fold and unfold a reading bios, to fuse in and through reflections on reading experience the world of everyday experience and the world of children’s literature, the world of children and the world of adults. It is also to instruct. Her cumulative referencing framework offers a way of connecting with communities of readers, which includes scholars of children’s literature. In the proliferating market of institutional autobiographical narratives, the life narratives of academics purport a navigation between individualism, between multiple takes on a professional reader, and her professional and communal experiences. Mackey’s theoretically informed self-narrative, developing within the horizon of cognitive science, is certainly a new proposition; it is an important account coalescing its relational subject while constructing multiple modes of accessing her affirming and instructive practices. What is more, One Child Reading gives a sense of our culture, not through conflicting ideologies of education, not through disengaging strategies operating in academia, exposed so often in studies of academic lives, but through a well-grounded belief in the transforming potential of children’s literature. Mackey’s form of expression identifies and enforces the importance of the "there-ness" of literature written for children. Such a narrative constitutes a vital extension of the databases of our culture. Mackey gestures towards a global phenomenon of "archival thinking" (as theorized by, for example, van Alphen), initiating the culture of new multidirectional forms of knowledge and communication. Bibliography is an archive, an open construal, penetrable and renewable. It makes multiplicity of choices and arrangements possible. Applied to autobiographical uses, it activates the poetics of experience within which forms of fullness of experience are articulated. Reading Mackey’s auto-bibliography, informed by "cumulative interpretative experiences of more than sixty years" (11), we move beyond the claims typically attached to memoir, the master form of life writing of recent decades: it is not all about "me." Mackey takes stock of "that extended knowledge locked inside my head in ways that were more disciplined than self-indulgent" (11). She admits memoir would emphasise too much the singularity of reading experience at the cost of acts of cultural rememoration.

When she defines literacy as "a family event, a social and civic event, a historically and geographically located event – and a textual event" (xv), she emphasises the inherently relational pattern of our lives. More critically, she foregrounds the promise that literate childhood brings to a life - the promise of strong and rejuvenating interactions with the world. MacKey opens her work with a photograph portraying her as a six-year-old girl stirring porridge, while reading introduces us to a child’s world in which she takes active roles not only in family matters. This child-centred perspective is a welcome proposition. Justyna Deszcz-Tryhubczak argues that such an approach "may become instrumental in giving justice to children and youth as subjects in their own right and as agent and social actors who not only experience cultural products [...] but are also active producers and commentators of culture" (23). Literacy solicits tremendous experiences; literacy produces subjects who in their singular plurality (singulier pluriel), to use the term from Jean-Luc Nancy’s title Being Singular Plural, are "beings with" capable of generating potent energies of comprehension.

Teresa Bruś
University of Wrocław, Poland

Works Cited

Deszcz-Tryhubczak, Justyna. Yes to Solidarity, No to Oppression. Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego, 2016.

Eco, Umberto. The Infinity of Lists: An Illustrated Essay. Trans. Alastair McEwan. New York: Rizzoli, 2009.

Mantel, Hilary. "Silence Grips the Town." BBC Radio 4 Reith Lectures. https://medium.com/@bbcradiofour/silence-grips-the-town-1cd94336efae.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. Being Singular Plural. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2000.

Van Alphen, Ernest. Staging the Archive: Art and Photography in the Age of New Media. London: Reaktion, 2014.