Reading Trashy Books When I Was Young Made Me A Better Writer

My parents absolutely policed what I read, but weirdly their barometer of what was appropriate had more to do with quality than it did with content.
Publish date:
January 15, 2013
books, not ashamed of my reading habits

I am a voracious reader. I always have been. If I wasn’t pouring over the stack of library books meant to get me through the week, I was contemplating the back of cereals boxes at breakfast, or squinting at the instructions on the back of my mom’s V05 while squatting on the john.

I swear there was a copy of Vanity Fair that had been in my parents bathroom for new less than nine years. I had Graydon Carter's musings circa 1992 memorized and then some. As a kid, I was not a critic. I was a kid. Harriet the Spy, Little House on the Prairie, Are You There God It's Me Margaret -- I made no distinction between any of them, I just read. Sure, I liked some books more than others but I never pitched a novel over my shoulder in a fit of pique like I’ve been known to do nowadays.

I was a pretty sheltered kid, and as such most of the books I picked up were gold to me purely by merit of presenting aspects of life and the world that were different than I what I knew. (Exhibit Little House AND PIG CRACKLING -- TAILS ON A STICK YOU GUYS!)

When I read this article about inappropriate books we read as kids, it got me thinking about the way we police -- or don’t -- young readers. What makes a book inappropriate? Usually it’s sex, language and situations. Although, books get a pass that video games and movies don’t. I feel like very often the thought process is -- “At least they’re reading!”

I personally think by and large this is a true. A real reader needs to develop taste, and that’s something that’s pretty personal. I don’t regret one moment I spent huddled in my bed reading Choose Your Own Adventure books (until my mother began associating them with Dungeons and Dragons and verily were they banned, along with LARPing, and the Ouija board) because those sessions influenced the way I think and read and write now as much as my first fateful foray into the world of Charlotte Bronte.My parents absolutely policed what I read, but weirdly their barometer of what was appropriate had more to do with quality than it did with content. My parents are both prolific readers, and my dad is a self-admitted snob. While my mom is the Young Adult librarian with the power to erase fines (which she straight up won't do because of "ethics") and an endless list of recommendations, I'd also get my fix at the bookstore. I figured, if I was going to be incurring 20 dollar fines, I may as well just get it out of the way to begin with.

My dad operates the same way. He's also a book-hoarder like me. It was my dad who took me to the bookstore and I relied on his own absent-minded professorial air when it came to buying me books. I could easily slip a book that was age-inappropriate due to sexual content or language or subject matter under his radar. It was a lot harder to slip past the unmitigated trash -- the pre-teen equivalent of romance novels =- that also appealed to me.When I was in 6th grade, my mom finished Marion Zimmer Bradley’s epic (and beyond boss) The Mists of Avalon, a re-imagining of the King Arthur Myth by Arthur’s half-sister Morgaine. It was rife with the sort of stuff my mom was usually very much “NOT FOR YOU” about, what with the wizardry and the magickal happenings. Plus, I mean, there was an impressive amount of banging -- some of it incestuous (#stagceremonyyouguys) and also spousal abuse.

But because my mom had liked it, she had zero issue with me picking it and inhaling. She didn’t even change her tune when I did A BOOK REPORT ON IT and MADE A DIORAMA. (There was little to no sex in my diorama. And more is the pity.)Because my mom is a boss, I’m pretty sure the reason she was cool with my reading it was because Zimmer Bradley presents women of power and strength, not normally something emphasized in the Arthurian myth, for all its Lady of the Lake origins. (Also she was trying to distract me from becoming a terrible stereotype of a witch. I blame The Witch of Blackbird Pond. I brought, like, eight earthworms home and called them my familiars. I had many, many friends.)My dad, on the other hand, didn’t bat an eye when at 14 I was all “Dad, please buy me ‘Tropic of Cancer’ and also ‘Lolita’?” To his credit, this guy didn’t say anything, he just bought the books. Meanwhile I was still naive enough not to appreciate that the sight of me reading Nabokov in my Catholic School uniform was pretty funny (TO PERVERTS.)Around this same time I read this book called 17 and In-Between. I hadn’t bought it or even checked it out of the library. I’d pick it up from one of those Free bins at school. It was harmless, pretty cheesy -- a teenager girl deciding if she should sleep with her long-term boyfriend factored into it. I’d left it sitting around and my dad, noticing it had read the first couple of pages and then told me I had to find something else to read.

His issue wasn’t the content -- it was that the book was trash. By 14, my taste was absolutely developing, and I knew the book wasn’t Kafka, but I resented my dad’s pedantic drive to mold what I liked and didn’t like in what I read. Ah yes, the rebel who fought for the works of Barthe DeClements. I am now, and always will be, a badass. To his credit, when I pointed this out, he dropped it. I think it would have really upset him to find that I was hiding books from him or my mom. When buying Barnes and Noble out of Henry Miller at the behest of his teenager daughter, all he'd said was "I'm buying you these because my father wouldn't have."

Going forward, instead of forbidding me reading materials, he’d ask me about what I was reading. It was sort of a defining moment, because instead of doing something like tell me that The Girl In The Box (also why are there copies of it that cost nearly $150.00?! DO I NEED TO FIND MINE AND SELL IT? This making me want to do a Michelle Tea-inspired rebuilding of my YA Fiction collection) was basically a low-rent fiction version of Dateline Investigates, my dad would just ask me what I was reading, and let me talk about it. And talk about it. And talk about it.When my thoughts were given room this way, I found that I could start to distinguish between basic readability and things that impacted me greatly, like well-developed characters, worlds that transported me, and language that stirred a myriad of nameless things within me.

While I’m not discounting or even discouraging supervision over what a child reads and when they read it, I think we do young readers a disservice by issuing general, instinctive dictums that don’t allow for conversation, development, and growth. After all, in the end forbidding something only gives it more power, doesn’t it?What books did you read on the sly as a kid? What YA books do you have fond memories of? Did anybody get obsessed with these books? Or this (That shits the OG Vampire book, yo.)? OR THESE? Oh man, what about this, ha ha?