The night I began devouring Steinbeck I set my bed afire with the smoldering plastic lampshade within the tent I'd made of blankets and bedposts. The rigging of a tent had been necessary to hide the lamplight, as my nine o'clock bed-time had long since come and gone. I'd been so absorbed with Tom Joad that I'd failed to notice the blankets settle down upon the lamp until the acrid stench and sparkly fulguration of the now molten shade caught my attention and sent me leaping from the bed.
“Let's see,” my mother had said that afternoon, taking a book down from the shelf, opening it at random and briefly skimming.“ You might be old enough for this one.” Its dust-jacket long gone, the dull green cover didn't inspire me much and the title, The Grapes of Wrath, etched in faded gold along the spine didn't seem like much fun, either. I had gone to the study, bored with Penrod or Homer Price or Archie and Mehitable or whatever I'd been reading and resolved to ask for something more grown-up, by which I meant written for adults, so I understood that anything offered would be challenging and have fewer pictures than what I'd been accustomed to. “Or this, maybe.” Mom continued, reaching for William Saroyan's The Human Comedy . “Or....Well, maybe not this quite yet. Dear...?” She asked of my father at his desk across the room, “ Do you think he'd be ready for Catcher In The Rye? Or, perhaps not yet....” She'd already decided, slipping the thinner volume back into its place on the shelf and replacing it on my growing stack with something called “A Separate Peace”. One thing was certain; adult books had odd, obscure titles, and I made a mental note of exactly where this one sat so that I'd be able to find it later and attempt to discover exactly what might make it too grown up for me.
It took me a month or more to return to that spot, during which I read Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday and began my own epic novel about Okies in the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression. One day, finding little of the Steinbeck I'd come to know and love in a quick perusal of the cover of Travels With Charlie, I remembered that bit of forbidden fruit a shelf or two away. After a quick check of the hallway to see that the coast was clear, I slid the Salinger from its place, hid it beneath the copy of A Separate Peace and made a furtive dash back to my room. As it happened, the two volumes were nearly identical in size and before I'd even ruffled a page I had an epiphany. Were I simply to switch the jackets, I could put the now ersatz Catcher back in its place on the shelf, openly carry the real thing about in mufti and no one would be the wiser. I still don't know what all the fuss was about. I loved the book, of course, but searched in vain for anything that might be considered titillating enough to make Catcher off limits.
Around this time the boys at school began talking about select passages hidden within various volumes that might be found in any one of our homes. I breathlessly thumbed the pages of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Lolita and even the painfully dull and dreary The Art of Loving without finding much to offend or instruct. I bludgeoned my way through Roth's Goodbye, Columbus. With utter futility I fanned through anything bearing the imprint of Grove Press. A tattered, paper-back version of Fanny Hill, way up on the top shelf, yielded some fairly racy stuff, but the eighteenth-century British idiom was such a chore to parse out in the context of my fifth-grade imagination that it was Greek to me. The Carpetbaggers and Candy were supposed to be the real deal - there were rumored to be a few copies floating around the eighth grade lockers - but these, too, left me unsatisfied, the one being so tedious it wasn't worth the effort and the other so silly as to render the naughty bits laughable and ridiculous. Which, at least in the case of Candy, might have been the point.
No effort so monumental goes entirely unrewarded and all this research did yield some unexpected gems. Within a year or so of finding nothing particularly spicy in Is Sex Necessary?, I'd become a devoted fan of both James Thurber and E.B. White, who, in turn, helped lead me into a world of great reading well beyond a schoolboy's callow search.