Monday, March 28, 2005

Brown Paper Books

Remember when reading a certain book was considered racy and as naughty as plucking an apple off of The Tree? Like my youthful mother-in-law hiding "Gone With The Wind" for clandestine reading in the outhouse, my own literary education was broadened with the discovery of the risque novel.

Bible belt matrons, stoically staring from behind the counter, were always on guard at the public library making it nearly impossible to check out these mouthwatering missives of pure corruption under their birddog eyes. So, the rare paperback copies we could get our hands on were being passed around my junior high to those daring souls who braved corporal punishment, a call to the parents, detention, even suspension. Someone came up with the brilliant idea of wrapping our contraband in brown paper bag book covers. Subterfuge inspired, no doubt, from Fleming himself. Ah ha! Such a creative solution! Oh, yeah. We might as well have put a flashing blue Kmart Special light under our arms when walking down the hall. We were losing our precious tomes faster than you could say Harold Robbins. A few really devious minds tried wrapping innocent paperbacks just to throw the Book Police off the scent, but in due time, all brown paper coverings were banned - the game no longer afoot.

My mother was ( and still is) too "busy" to read much. When she received her official sheepskin and her teaching certificate, she decided that she didn't have to read books anymore. An outdoorsy person, she never understood my own passion for reading. Dad, however, could have been a real bookworm if he hadn't been so busy working three jobs. He did get in the occasional novel a few times a year and kept most of his paperbacks on the floor of his closet stacked between his hunting boots and his moccasin houseshoes. Favoring mostly westerns, and detective novels, his choices were not your typical fare for teenaged girls. As Freudian as it may sound, I still associate the masculine smell of cherry pipe tobacco, the leather of worn shoes and Brut cologne with their genre. Thanks to Dad's library, my adventure into "adult" reading started with a filched Perry Mason thriller called "The Case of the Glamorous Ghost". I remember the cover: black and dark blue swirls of midnight and a rising moon silhouetting a nearly nude female ethereal being, bare gossamer threads trailing strategically across her body. And so it began, my leap into higher learning leaving Nancy ,Trixie, and Victoria gathering dust on their spines.

As my adolescent sexuality was wrecking havoc with my skin and emotions, I dove tongue-first into juicy titles like "The Betsy", "Portnoy's Complaint", "Catch-22", "Lady Chatterly's Lover", "Delta of Venus", and "On The Road". My mom was clueless as to my new passionate literary growth. Her non-reader status was quite fortunate for me in that regard. (I did go to some effort to hide Xaviera Hollander's biography, though. Slipped it between the mattress and box springs of my bed. Yeah, like no mom ever checks there.) Once when coming home late one night from his second job, my dad noticed my bedroom light on and came in to have a quick goodnight hug. I was deep into the love life of Angelo Perino and had no time to attempt the mattress sandwich trick. Dad tried not to be overly nosy about my book, but he nonchalantly picked it up from my hands, noticed the title, and with his trademark hyper-arched left eyebrow, simply asked me if I understood it. Mutely, I just nodded my head, keeping my expression serious and mustering as much grown-up demeanor possible. He chuckled a little, patted my knee and said, "Well, put it back in my closet when you are finished." After that, we began discussing some of our shared reading, more often by authors such as Boris Pasternak, Tennesse Williams or Hemingway. During those teenaged years when daughters and dads do that awkward dance, we found common ground for bonding. It embarrasses me now, but I recall being amazed that my dad possessed such intellectual depth and knowledge; his interpretations of Pasternak were wonderfully unique and helped me grasp the Russian revolution and the human tragedy of war so much better than any staid and stilted history teacher could.

Dad has been gone for almost five years, and I wished that I had offered to read aloud to him more during those years of books on tape because his eyesight had deteriorated too much even for bold print books. He would have loved the "DaVinci Code", and the joy of taunting me with the secret knowledge of something I surely missed in chapter two or twelve. I never got caught in junior high with a forbidden book, but somehow I know my dad would have laughed heartily at such a caper and then reminded me to just put it back in the closet when I was finished reading.

11 comments:

another lisa said...

I remember finding a book hidden in my older sister's room...and reading a sex scene over and over... I just didn't understand it... I must have been about grade 7... my mom didn't tell us anything about sex. It was such a mystery to me - I don't think I really knew much until about grade 11...

bill said...

Our family did not buy many books. We usually just checked them out from the public library. They just had plain buckram covers there. I think my parents just assumed anything from the library was okay. I can't remember any comments. I was an extreme bookworm in my junior high school years.

Kimberly said...

when I was in 8th grade, I found a copy of The Happy Hooker on the bookshelves of a family for whom I babysat. I read it every time I babysat for them for the next year or so.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in a house with a ton of books. I had my own stash of them, but few were naughty. My mom made my dad stop subscribing to Playboy when I was born, but I did find a cigar box full of cartoons from that mag.

I'm sort of outdoorsy, too, but one of my fave pastimes is reading outdoors. Go figure.

– Tex T-bone

Mildred Garfield said...

When you write about brown paper books it reminds me of the brown paper bags that covered the boxes of Kotex so no one would know what was inside the bags. You are probably to young to remember when the drug stores did that.

Ask your mother if she remembers that.

Millie

Hokule'a said...

I was so fortunate to have enlightened parents that let us read anything we wanted and a Father that would explain the "racy stuff". My Baptist Mom didnt much approve of that but held her peace. We were reading books with "mature themes" like war particularly WWII as my father was a vet and we had friends who were survivors of the nazi camps. It horrified my 5th grade teacher when I wanted to do a book report on Leon Uris' Exodus. I had to wait until the next year when my 6th grade teacher also a WWII vet encouraged me by putting Hermon Wouk into my hands and discussing the larger themes afterschool. (this man also spent hours trying to teach me how to divide and use a decimal point, as well as the hopeless task of penmanship...)
I dont know that I had that much exposure to the "racy dime novel" that you describe. And sadly for all of the discussion about sex, the practical application of the ideas discussed really didnt sink in until it was way too late and I was a victim rather than a participant.
Will miss your writing while I am off the air.

Pancho said...

I used to hide what little dirty reading material I had in my aptly named "treasure chest" which was a lockable compartment located in book shelves my Dad built for my brother and me. The only one book I remember is the Kinsey Report.

Later, in H.S. I used to hide my illicit booze in the "treasure chest". This consisting of a wine bottle filled with small amounts of hooch I purloined from the family liquor cabinet. This worked for awhile...until the mixture of wine and whiskey fermented and blew the cork out of the storage bottle and sent noxious booze flowing out of the "treasure chest". Busted!

Anonymous said...

Oh, Pancho, what a laugh you gave me. I can picture the fizzy mess. Thanks for the laughter. Cop Car

Anonymous said...

Good gawd, Pancho. Almost as bad as my dad bottling green beer that blew kitchen cabinet doors right off their hinges...

Pattie

Ronni Bennett said...

When I was 10 or 11, in the early 1950s, a racy book about Hollywood, "What Makes Sammy Run," was a best seller.

I was deep into reading it one day when a friend of my dad's stopped by. He looked at the title and said to my dad, "You're letting her read this book?"

Dad said, of course, that if he forbid it, I'd surely sneak read it and what's the point of that.

My parents' home was always overflowing with books and none was forbidden - at least, not that I know of...maybe they hid some.

Eric said...

Explosive mixtures? Try hot summer Saturday afternoons, city swimming pool, teenaged girls on one set of beach towels, teenage boys on another set, passing a ragged copy of "Candy" back and forth.

That cold swimming pool water was quite, um, refreshing.