The subway car was filled with liars.
Next to me a woman held a book with a dust jacket declaring it Mansfield Park. But when I discretely leaned over to see how Fanny Price was fairing, I was shocked to read a sentence including the phrases “heated loins” and “heaving bosom”: words I was certain were lacking from Jane Austen’s vernacular.
The dust jacket was a means of deceit, a way to avoid public ridicule. My neighbor, a middle-aged woman with smart glasses and a J.Crew blouse, didn’t want anyone to know she was reading smut. I turned to my left. This neighbor held up The New Yorker—but cuddled up against his open magazine was a Maxim.
I disembarked from that subway feeling an overwhelming compassion for my fellow readers. After all, there had been a time when I, too, had been embarrassed by my reading materials.
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As a writer, I was not interested in the literary fiction that so captivated my peers. As much as I enjoyed reading it, I did not wish to write it. I wanted to tell stories that would shape the lives of younger readers—I wanted to write young adult fiction.
And so I started reading it.
Granted, Harry Potter had become an agreed-upon literary outlet for everyone aged 8-88. But the first time I caught a strange look for re-reading a Beverly Cleary novel on my way to Queens I immediately stuffed it back into my bag, my cheeks burning.
New YA fiction, with its ridiculous covers of depressed teenagers staring at one another longingly only added to the amount of raised eyebrows I noticed whenever I looked up from my book. Young Adult fiction, when not Harry Potter or a series destined for movie-blockbuster stardom, was not acceptable for adults to be reading unless they happened to be teaching it.
Now, when all I wanted to do was enjoy twenty minutes of uninterrupted reading on my way to work, I instead spent most of the time looking around to see if anyone had noticed I was reading novels meant for a demographic ten years younger.
Soon, I, too, would hold up The New Yorker while reading Laurie Haise Anderson’s haunting Wintergirls or Markus Zusak’s beautiful The Book Thief, which I still count as one of my all-time favorite novels. It didn’t matter that the subjects were beyond adult—eating disorders and the Holocaust—the covers gave away their YA roots, and I knew the literary elite thought less of me.
Then I went to see some well-respected short story writers read at a local bookstore. I sat and listened, my mouth ajar in awe, as they read their selected shorts, many of which discussed topics far less “heavy” than the YA fiction I read. As I went to get a copy of their book signed, my reading material—Tim Tharp’s The Spectacular Now—fell out of my purse. Blushing, I stooped to pick it up. Respected Writer One got their first.
“I love this book!” he exclaimed. “Tharp has a great sense of voice.”
Shocked, I simply nodded. Respected Writer One turned to Respected Writer Two. “Have you read this?” he asked. Respected Writer Two shook her head, but said she’d pick up a copy for her nephew.
“I like adult novels too,” I added, not wanting them to think I had immature taste.
Respected Writer One shrugged. “Who cares? Read whatever makes you happy.”
And that was that. Respected Writer One was right: who cared if I read YA novels or War and Peace? All that mattered was that I was entertained—that I was reading. If someone was going to judge me for reading a book, I had every right to judge them back.
Now if I catch a raised eyebrow, I smile extra big. But more often than not, my varied reading material has opened more doors than they have shut. When I substitute teach, I discuss the latest YA knowledgeably with my young students. Waiting outside a new superhero movie opening, I make small talk with the fans in line.
And when I want to go to a particularly indie coffee shop, I will happily discuss Tin House’s latest offering. Go ahead and judge me, but if you do, you’ll never get to know me—or the wonderful stories I could share with the simple passing of a well-worn book.
[photo credit: Horst Petzold/Shutterstock.com]
How about you? Have you ever hidden what you’re reading inside another book’s dust jacket? Are there books you love but keep hidden at the back of your bookshelf?