Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Illicit Reading

Apparently, The New York Times Book Review, once the most austere section of that newspaper's Sunday edition, it planning a Sex Issue for the coming weekend. I was struck by the following sentence on the paper's Web site today promoting that issue:
A select group of writers, including Nicholson Baker, Alison Bechdel, Rachel Kushner, Geoff Dyer and Jackie Collins, will share their memories of the first illicit thing they ever read. They describe the mixture of fear, shame, elation and pure raw nerves they felt reading something without the endorsement of parents or teachers.
What struck me about that "select group" is that I could care less what any of them have to say on this matter.

On the other hand, here behind my own little public megaphone to the world, I have no trouble picking up that bait, since I remember my first experience very vividly. For that I can thank the city of Philadelphia and the management of the Free Library of Philadelphia. Those were the people who decided to pull Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer from the shelves of all of their library collections.

My guess is that, if you ask anyone who lives in Philadelphia, they will tell you that one of the best things about the city is that it is a short train ride to New York. Therefore, I figured that the best way to find out what all the fuss was about was to get on that train. I had no trouble finding a bookstore to get a copy. I even remember starting to read it on the train ride back to Philadelphia. I even remember that the Grove paperback (which I still have) had, as a preface, "The Greatest Living Author" by Karl Shapiro. I knew who Shapiro was because one of his poems was included in the American Literature collection used for junior-year English at my high school. If this was someone my high school respected, I should read what he had to say.

Shapiro excited my desire to read Miller for myself with a single sentence:
Let's assemble a bible from his [Miller's] work … and put one in every hotel room in America, after removing the Gideon Bibles and placing them in the laundry chutes.
The result was that my "first contact" with Tropic of Cancer was more one of solemnity that of any "mixture of fear, shame, elation and pure raw nerves." All that seemed to signify was that an authority I was willing to accept had declared Henry Miller to be an author that mattered, and it did not take me long to appreciate the warrants behind that declaration. Yes, the book was raw: nasty, brutish, and not particularly short. I seemed quickly to find my own pace for reading about his squalid conditions; so I never felt a need to slam the volume shut and shout, "Enough already!" The book had a pace that was missing from many of the books that I had been forced to read as part of my studies. As a result, reading the book was definitely a "first," but not because it had been declared illicit. Rather, it was my first contact with an author who really took the idea of writing as a craft seriously; and that is probably why, in my own reading experience, solemnity prevailed over all of those baser reactions from which the Free Library of Philadelphia had tried to protect me.

I should point out, by the way, that I did not feel particularly revolutionary at the time. Once I was within the Philadelphia city limits, I kept the book safely tucked away in its simple paper bag, the same bag I would have received had I purchased a copy of Anna Karenina. Then, when I got back to my parent's house, I gave the book its own MIT book cover. (This all happened during the summer after my freshman year, when I had my first summer job doing programming for a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania.) That book cover has been gone for some time, but the Black Cat paperback itself is still on my bookshelf as part of the Henry Miller collection.

See, the major impact that came from reading Tropic of Cancer was an intense curiosity to read more of Miller's work. To this day I still prefer Tropic of Capricorn, primarily because it has more of a sense of humor. Above all, however, I like his essays, particularly when he writes about neglected artists, as he did for the two volumes of his Air-Conditioned Nightmare series. As I have previously observed, that collection includes the best essay about Edgard Varèse I have read by any author. Perhaps, after all, there was an element of "pure raw nerves" to Miller's writing, since it was only through that quality that he could get to the essence of Varèse's work so astutely.

No comments: