Each summer, The New Yorker magazine runs a fiction issue, meant to prepare its readers for baking in the sun while imbibing culture with their gin and tonic. This year, amidst very serious short fiction, the magazine interspersed five brief pieces by successful writers describing their earliest reading experiences.
Unlike the New Yorker paragons, I didn’t hold fond memories of “Robinson Crusoe,” “Treasure Island” or “The Secret Garden.” It wasn’t from parental neglect; my mother took me to the nearby library from the time I was four or five, trying to fob off various picture books and adventure stories. I quietly toted them home, quickly read them and obediently exchanged them for others.
The books I wanted to read rested on the small table between my parents’ twin beds (this was the ‘50’s, after all). They offered a glimpse into the adult world, with its mysteries and secrets and the words my parents switched into Yiddish before saying in front of me.
The first book that caught my eye, both because of its gold-lettered title and relative slimness, was “The Confessions of Artemas Quibble,” by the now long-forgotten Arthur Train, published in 1911. This novel traced the development of an intricate legal theory claiming that money gained illegally could not be stolen, because it had never actually belonged to the thieving victim.
Using this theory, the eponymous Quibble won a series of cases that gained him both notoriety and a small fortune. As I read it, it caused me to reflect on my own attorney-father’s ethics and whether he would have subscribed to and/or capitalized on his own shady theories.
Unfortunately, before he could tell me, he decamped to a far-off state with a new wife and our subscription to “Readers Digest Condensed Books,” my other favorite source of printed entertainment. I also, for the life of me, can’t remember whether the aptly named Quibble was ever caught in his legal manipulations.
My next foray into the world of my parents’ private library was Herman Wouk’s “Marjorie Morningstar.” This hefty work, published in 1955, told the story of a young New York City girl who hoped to become an actress. She saw her natal last name, Morgenstern, as an impediment and changed it to Morningstar, to appear less obviously Jewish.
Since my family had recently changed our name for the same reason, I asked my mother why I still had to go to religious school, which seemed a dead giveaway about my religion. “Some day you’ll understand,” she remarked helpfully.
Marjorie also spent days on end worrying about her virginity, a topic that sent me to the dictionary for help. The definitions indicated that a virgin was pure and unsullied. I had no idea what that meant in practice, since Mr. Webster wasn’t prepared to convey the birds and bees to a ten year old.
I asked my mother, who predictably responded, “You’re too young,” which of course only aroused my interest further. I read the rest of the book and was relieved that while Marjorie forsook her acting ambitions to marry a dentist and move to the suburbs, she kept her virginity, although I never discovered where.
My next excursion into the night table yielded a book buried under the Old Testament, two volumes of condensed books and several copies of Ladies Home Journal. This, of course, whetted my curiosity, and I quickly found myself knee deep in Alfred Kinsey’s “Sexual Behavior of the Human Male.”
In its 600 odd pages, I discovered that men did things that required multi-syllabic Latin or Greek terms to describe. Webster’s didn’t consider any of them worthy of inclusion in its hallowed pages. My mother disclaimed any knowledge about such things.
My more likely source, my older brother, was too busy at college playing poker and putting Kinsey into practice to come to my rescue. My sexual education thus was derived from the usual sources: equally uninformed friends anxious to appear worldly.
Stuart Grover is a retired consultant residing in Tacoma, and one of six reader columnists who write for this page. If you’d like to demystify him on these or other topics, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org