I have been trying, without success, to write about the books we read in secret, or what I like to call sneaky reading (and if this makes you think of the social reading I defended a few months ago, it should, antithetically speaking). I think I’ve finally figured out why the writing has been so difficult (and it has: I’ve started and stopped and started again, rewriting and rearranging the same few not-quite-working paragraphs). You see, while I can go on at length about my own sneaky reading, I’ve just realized that I don’t know what to say about my kids. And perhaps that’s the point.
The sneaky reading of my late childhood and early adolescence was all about the sex. At my best friend’s slumber parties in her parents’ attic bedroom, we crowded around The Pearl, a 1970s reprint of the famous Victorian erotica magazine. We knew the exact spot on the bookshelf behind the bed where the book resided, apparently untouched by anyone but us, and we inevitably ended up there. Is it really possible that my friend’s parents, camped out downstairs in the guest room, didn’t hear the squeals of fascinated disgust that accompanied our whispered recitations of flagellation rhymes and rapturous accounts of defloration by maidservants? Hard to believe now, especially since I’m a mom who hears way more than my own children imagine, but back then the thought never occurred to us, convinced, as we were, of our own sneaky omnipotence.
I read John Updike’s Couples on my own, though I exercised similar care in taking and replacing the volume from its bookshelf slot. All I remember, besides a lot of beach picnics and a general atmosphere of infidelity, is a scene where a mother bends over and someone, presumably a man, but really me, sees her wiry middle-aged breast almost fall out of her bathing suit. My mother remembers having no idea what to do about the fact that her precious pre-adolescent was reading such adult literature. So she did nothing, and for that I can only thank her.
Sneaky reading introduced me to sex, but, more importantly, it gave me autonomy. If my particular sneaky reading was tinged with shame, it was equally colored by triumph, shaping my sense of myself as a person who could make my own decisions, read my own books, build my own knowledge, determine my own destiny. And the subject doesn’t have to be sex. When Catherine Morland sneaks novels in Northanger Abbey, and Beth Ellen, in The Long Secret, reads the Bible on the sly, each asserts her own prerogative against local definitions of the forbidden. The familiar trope of the child who reads late at night, under the covers with a flashlight, figures as a rebellion against the proscription of reading itself.
Which brings me to my children. In my original plan for this column, I was going to compare the sneaky sex reading of my childhood with Eva’s recent reading of current children’s hit The Mysterious Benedict Society. If that sounds ridiculous, well, it is, which is why I couldn’t make the comparison work. My initial thought was that I have no connection to The Mysterious Benedict Society, just as my own mother had no connection — or so I thought — to what I read behind her back. Only Eva didn’t read The Mysterious Benedict Society behind my back: she read it on her own, at the suggestion of her school librarian. Although I had no idea what she was reading — and still don’t really get it: why is the two-year-old a genius? is Mr. Benedict a good guy or a bad guy? — she certainly didn’t hide it from me. In fact, she has tried to explain it numerous times, only to announce “It’s too complicated!” though I couldn’t say whether that’s because the book really is so complicated or because the glazed look in my eyes is too much for her to bear.
It is, however, one thing to chart your own reading path, away from the literary domains controlled by your parents, as Eva has done so effectively, and quite another thing to hide, break rules, trespass, in a word, sneak — which is precisely why I call it sneaky reading, instead of, say, secret reading: to emphasize those transgressive and unseemly aspects of an activity which is too often associated wholly with the wholesome in these days of Grand Theft Auto, escalating movie violence, and proliferating porn websites.
Though I have lived a generally law-abiding life, aside from the basic misdemeanors of my generation, and have found myself, more often than not, in positions that require the enforcing of rules, I am fundamentally in favor of rule-breaking, so long as nobody is hurt. Many years ago, I ran a summer camp where teenage girls snuck out at night to meet boys from the camp next door, as teenage campers always have, much to the consternation of their counselors. I pretended to share their concern, and I lectured the girls in question about their wrongdoing, but I also took care never to catch them in the act, because at heart I believed that sneaking out into the country dark on your own was an important piece of making your own choices, taking risks, and being brave, in short, of growing up and becoming yourself (and, yes, I’m lucky that nobody ever got pregnant).
Sneaking a book won’t make you pregnant. It won’t even put you at risk of breaking your leg (unless the book in question is high up on a shelf and you are trying to reach for it in the dark). But it can be exciting, titillating, dangerous, perhaps damaging, ultimately dull, or maybe even life-changing, which is what risk is all about.
I don’t know anything about my kids’ sneaky reading. I don’t even know if they are sneaky readers (they are fairly law-abiding, but then again, so am I). It could be hard to be a sneaky reader when you know that your mother believes in breaking rules. It could be that the only way to transgress in such a situation is to refuse to transgress. But that’s OK too. Like my friend’s parents and my mother, it is my job to stand aside and give my children the space to read what they want, even if it’s not what I want to read, and even if I’d really prefer that they not read it. If they can manage to accomplish that reading without me knowing about it, so much the better for them.
If social reading affirms our connections to others, sneaky reading affirms our connections to ourselves, and we are the only ones who really need to know.