“How to Read Disreputably” (by Kevin Mims)

Kevin Mims is a short-story writer and essayist whose stories have appeared in many literary magazines and in EQMM and AHMM. His essays have appeared in the New York Times and many other newspapers. He last contributed a post to this site almost exactly a year ago. He returns with a piece focused entirely on reading and readers. It will bring back some vivid memories for those of us who used to carry “pocket books” around in pockets or bags.—Janet Hutchings

When I was a lad I enjoyed reading in literary genres that were regarded as disreputable: crime fiction, sci-fi, fantasy, western, film novelizations, true crime, etc. Back then, serious books tended to be published in hardback editions and in so-called “quality” paperback editions, the latter being larger than traditional paperback books and printed on paper that wouldn’t turn yellow with age. Disreputable literature, on the other hand, was most commonly found between the covers of small paperback books. These were called “mass market” paperbacks or “pocket books” because they could literally be stuffed into the back pocket of one’s jeans. Thin collections of short stories by the likes of Ray Bradbury, Fredric Brown, Ernest Haycox, and H.P. Lovecraft were staples of my literary diet. Likewise, paperback novels by such luminaries as Alistair MacLean, Agatha Christie, Isaac Asimov, and John D. MacDonald could frequently be seen bulging in my back pockets.

One problem these days is that there are no disreputable literary genres anymore. Grown women unashamedly sit in the bleachers and read semiliterate soft-core porn (Fifty Shades of Gray) inspired by silly juvenile fantasy fiction while waiting for their daughters’ soccer practice to end. Grown men avidly read books that recast Abraham Lincoln as a zombie hunter. In the 1960s and 70s only nerds could be seen carrying around tattered paperback copies of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy novels. Now respectable businessmen and -women eagerly devour the latest installments of multivolume fantasy cycles by the likes of George R.R. Martin and Diana Gabaldon in an effort to stay one step ahead of the prestigious big-budget television miniseries based on those tomes. Many of these pillars of the community are reading their Fifty Shades books and Vampires vs. Zombies books on e-readers, which make it impossible for the person sitting across from them on the subway to determine if they are reading Stéphane Mallarmé or Stephenie Meyer. Thus you might conclude that one advantage of the e-reader is that it has made it possible to read disreputable literature in public without fear of being caught at it. But I don’t think this fact is important to most of those who use an e-reader. The truth is that few people these days are ashamed to be caught reading trashy books.

In the old days, reading a tattered, yellowing paperback bedizened with a lurid cover was a way of letting your freak flag fly. It allowed you to announce to the world that you didn’t give a damn about what the cultural snobs thought. And the beauty of it is that much of what passed as pop detritus back in the 60s and 70s is now actually recognized as a truly valuable contribution to Western culture. Tolkien’s fantasies are now taken seriously as literature. Likewise, genre writers such as Patricia Highsmith, Elmore Leonard, and Jim Thompson, who were mainstays of the pulp-fiction mass-market paperback racks in the 60s and 70s are now regarded as masters of the American idiom. Their books are now published in classy looking trade-paperback editions and their lives are the subjects of serious literary biographies. Time has vindicated many of my own freak flags. The snobs who looked down their noses at me as I read my paperback copy of Leonard’s Mr. Majestyk on a Portland, Oregon, bus back in 1976 now probably speak admiringly of Leonard’s pitch-perfect ear for the way America’s hustlers, grifters, and losers speak. But plenty of my paperback heroes still remain unappreciated. It seems unlikely that the literary snobs will ever embrace the likes of Fredric Brown or Ernest Haycox or Lewis B. Patten despite the many pleasures to be found within their prolific output of novels and short stories. That’s their loss. The point is that the cheap, yellowing, pocket paperback was a uniquely satisfying physical object. The spines tended to be stiff, which meant that it took a bit of effort to hold the book open. The pages tended to absorb odors, which meant that they sometimes smelled vaguely of cigarette smoke or the musty old garage in which the book resided before you bought it for five cents at a yard sale. Blocks of print were occasionally slightly askew on the page, so that one paragraph might be out of alignment with the paragraphs below and above it. Sometimes the print at the far left side of right-hand pages and the far right side of left-hand pages tended to get sucked into the vortex at the center of the book like light being sucked into a black hole. This forced the reader to hold the book with both hands and splay it apart like a mousetrap that one was setting. Occasionally the reader had to squint at the places where some previous owner’s sweaty thumb had washed away some of the printer’s ink. Sure, these imperfections were frequently annoying, but the hardship of reading a cheap paperback generally added to the sense of accomplishment one felt upon finishing the book. Cheap paperbacks could be not only intellectually demanding at times but also physically demanding. All of these physical demands are lost when one reads on an e-reader.

Some literary snobs argue that the greatest flaw of the e-book is that it can never replace the tactile pleasure of holding in one’s hand a really well-made physical book, a book bound with cloth covers, dressed in a beautiful glossy dust jacket, and printed on acid-free paper upon which the words have been set in an elegant typeface ideally suited to the subject matter. But my complaint is that the e-book cannot replicate the thrill of reading a disreputable genre novel in a disreputable format—i.e., a spavined old pocket paperback whose pages are yellowed and whose print is annoyingly small and whose cheap cardboard is so fragile that dog-earing the corner a few times is likely to cause it to break off like a piece of graham cracker.

Until just recently, when she graduated from high school, I used to escort a granddaughter of mine to various volleyball tournaments when both of her parents were otherwise occupied. The parents and grandparents who accompanied the athletes at these day-long (and sometimes weekend-long) events almost always brought along something to read during the long empty stretches between matches. Most of these adults were, unlike me, reasonably well-off suburbanites and they tended to prefer e-readers to actual books. I usually brought along old paperback books because they were easier to carry than hardbacks. I recall a time when I was amidst a bunch of volleyball parents who were sitting around reading during a break between matches. One of the parents, looking around at the others, began asking us all what we were reading. All of the other parents seemed to be devouring current bestsellers by the likes of Dr. Phil or Deepak Chopra or James Patterson or Sandra Brown. Everyone listened politely while each person described the bestseller she was reading on her e-reader. When it came my turn, however, I held up an old yellow-paged Avon paperback edition of Margaret Millar’s The Fiend. The book had been published in 1964. My paperback edition was a reprint from 1974. Its back pages advertised other popular Avon titles of the era such as Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, I’m OK – You’re OK by Thomas A. Harris M.D., You & I by Leonard Nimoy, and The Brothers System for Liberated Love and Marriage by Dr. Joyce Brothers. The cover painting was a lurid montage containing an unsmiling woman in a bridal veil, a sad-looking little girl holding a glowering cat, and a shadowy man in a long coat, standing in a public park and eyeing the little girl with evil intent. Everything about the book screamed “cheap, sensationalist trash involving pedophilia!” But Millar’s novel, like almost all her work, is a well-written story of suspense far more interested in psychological portraiture than in cheap thrills. Written back when the sunny, upper middle-class suburbs of southern California were pretty much a literal embodiment of the American Dream, Millar’s book was way ahead of its time in its ability to demonstrate how even in these homogenous, upscale communities, marriages were falling apart, childhood was fraught with anxiety, and even the most ordinary of people could have terrifying tendencies hidden behind their placid outward appearances. I was eager to sing the book’s praises to my fellow readers, but before I could even say, “I’m reading The Fiend by Margaret Millar,” I was interrupted by someone who said, “Wow, that looks like a golden oldie.” Someone else observed, “My grandmother used to have a whole shelf full of old paperback mysteries like that.” Pretty soon everyone was talking about the boxes of old paperbacks their parents used to keep out in the garage, or their neighbor lady who was always buying bagfuls of old paperbacks at thrift stores and yard sales. Although it was almost certainly the best written and most intelligent of the books under discussion in that little circle of volleyball parents, no one wanted to hear about The Fiend. It was relegated to the status of nostalgic curiosity simply because of the format in which I was reading it. No one in that circle of parents was ever likely to read The Fiend because, even to this day, no e-book version of the novel is available. If you want to read The Fiend, you pretty much have no choice but to seek out a yellowing old paperback at a thrift store or from the box in the garage of the crazy old lady who lives next door to you. Although I was frustrated by the fact that I wasn’t given an opportunity to sing the praises of a great-but-sadly-neglected master of the American suspense novel, I was gratified by the reappearance of a feeling I hadn’t experienced much of since high school—the thrill of reading a disreputable book in a very public place, the thrill of letting my freak flag fly proudly. Crime novels are no longer a disreputable genre because, hey, no genre seems to be disreputable anymore. Scott Turow, Michael Connelly, P.D. James, Dennis Lehane, Kate Atkinson—no one is, or should be, ashamed to read the works of these very gifted crime writers in a public place. But, nowadays, no one is ashamed to read even the works of total hacks in public. The only way to make yourself appear disreputable these days is to grab hold of some cheap-looking old paperback. I’m not talking about one of the glossy-covered James Patterson or John Grisham bestsellers that reside on the spinner rack at the airport bookstore. Those are perfectly respectable these days. The covers are usually masterpieces of contemporary design and the words are printed on bright, white, acid-free paper. No, if you want to really experience the thrill of reading a disreputable book in public, you need to get hold of a lurid-looking paperback book published sometime in the 1960s or 70s and then whip it out in the grandstands of some high-school gymnasium or kids’ soccer park or public conveyance or sidewalk bistro. Only then will you get the kind of stares and odd remarks usually reserved for those who have toilet paper stuck to the bottom of their shoes. It is an experience that no e-reader will ever be able to replicate. I recommend it highly.

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4 Responses to “How to Read Disreputably” (by Kevin Mims)

  1. Larque Press says:

    Head straight over to Hard Case Crime!

  2. Leigh says:

    Hi William! Long time.

    Funny thing is as a child, I never knew those books I loved were disreputable. I reading my way through my professor aunt’s collection. Many of the books were WW-II soldier editions printed in landscape mode. Hey, if they were good enough for GIs and a professor, they were respectable enough, weren’t they?

  3. Pingback: “Woody, Clint, and Dutch: Three American Masters, Each With a Long-term Commitment to Crime Fiction” (By Kevin Mims) | SOMETHING IS GOING TO HAPPEN

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