I was talking with a Young Person the other day, who felt frustrated because his parents keep a very strict eye on his reading material. This got me to thinking about what I read - and how I read - back then, when my tastes were in their formative stage. I know that in middle school, I was a huge fan of Sweet Valley High. Sweet Valley High, Christopher Pike, and this little series called Secret of the Unicorn Queen. I can still remember gawping at the Sweet Valley High shelf in the children's section of my local B. Dalton (which, let me be honest here, I do not miss at all - the selection was awful), and having to special order the Secret of the Unicorn Queen books, going up to the cash register to claim them when the books arrived, how they were bound up in a rubber band and smelled new. I have a horrible, horrible memory and the number of things I can recall with such clarity from that period of my life could probably be counted on both hands, but that's one of them.
Three things happened during junior high that broadened my tastes a bit:
- I started reading romance,
- I found a copy of Voltaire's Candide illustrated with pornographic drawings, and
- I moved on to mass market adult fiction, especially Michael Crichton and the Clan of the Cave Bear series.
Here's the thing. If I read romance novels openly at my school, they'd be confiscated because they were "inappropriate," and all of my teachers tsked about how Bright Young Erin Was Reading Trash. However, when I read Pornographic Drawing Candide and Pornographic Cavemen Jean M. Auel, the very same people who confiscated my romance novels praised me.
I have a maxim about human behavior, which is that you can't blame a person for taking the path of least resistance. I could go on and on about this maxim and how I apply it in life, and in this case there was a clear lesson for me, which I will illustrate with a Venn Diagram:
I liked praise. I disliked disapproval. I liked smutty books. What's the path of least resistance? Seek out the books where "Books Containing Age-Inappropriate Material" and "Praise" overlapped, and hide books where "Books Containing Age-Inappropriate Material" and "Disapproval" overlapped.
And that's how I became a secret reader of romances and a proud, snickering reader of literature with dirty bits. The Clan of the Cave Bear series falls in the little triangle where all three circles overlapped - I was praised for reading Big, Serious Books but got a fair bit of disapproval because the series was popular enough that lots of adults knew about all the graphic sex. Which led to Lesson Number Two: if the adults haven't read it, they don't know it's bad.
I honestly don't know what would have happened to me if I hadn't found that illustrated copy of Candide. I was always a big reader, but as my middle school library shows, my taste was typical of my age group. Nothing out of the ordinary at all. But Pornographic Candide opened up a whole new world to me. A world where I could have my cake and eat it too. I walked around with a Penguin Classics copy of Fanny Hill and nobody blinked an eye at my Catholic High School. I picked up an aged, beat-up hardcover of The Perfumed Garden, which just looked so boring that nobody bothered to ask what it was about. I felt like I was getting away with something (which I was), and it was so much fun that I kept it up. At the end of it all, I'd actually developed a taste for literary writing, because I associated it with being subversive and naughty.
I never lost my taste for romances, either, I just took it underground. I'll admit to being an early adopter of the Kindle because I wanted to read my romance novels outside of my room, which felt like such a luxury. But really, the best thing of all was the moment when I stopped being embarrassed about reading romances - because that meant I'd thrown the Venn diagram out the window, that I was really reading for me and my own satisfaction.