“Where are the Pocket Books?” I asked the clerk in the large discount department store. I was killing time while my parents were shopping elsewhere. A common occurrence.
“Ladies’ handbags are over there,” the salesperson pointed across the expansive space. .
“No, no. Paperback books,” I quickly corrected. I was humiliated that I had incorrectly asked for paperback books by the brand name. I didn’t know that the publisher was just the first of many imprints to produce and distribute pulp paperbacks. This wasn’t the first time I’d made the mistake. I soon found the section of rectangular repositories of information and other worlds. I couldn’t afford hardcover books so I waited impatiently for them to be released in paper. I loved perusing the racks of new releases.
In junior high I won a contest the prize of which was paperback thesaurus. I didn’t really want it so I managed to trade it for one I did: Elizabeth Taylor by Elizabeth Taylor, published in 1967. Having followed the controversial filming of Cleopatra and admiring her recent roles in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and The Taming of the Shrew, I devoured the movie star’s autobiography. I vividly remember learning of her intense dislike for the appellation “Liz.” She preferred to be known as Betty Burton.
Another memorable book was The Bridge at Andau, James Michener’s nonfiction account of the 1957 Hungarian Revolution. The paperback was passed around my pack of pubescent boys as if it was pornography. I think we were less interested in the political events, more titillated by detailed depictions of torture. I went on to read many Michener tomes, including The Source, Hawaii, and my father’s copy of Tales of the South Pacific.
He had lent me his well-loved copy and told me that it was an adult book, so that if I encountered anything I didn’t understand, just ask and he’d be happy to explain it to me.
I kept coming across a phrase that I knew was nasty but couldn’t figure out exactly what it meant. I finally summoned the courage to ask my dad.
“What letter does it begin with, “ he wanted to know.
“S,” I said shyly.
Armed with the appropriate volume of the World Book Encyclopedia as well as a dictionary, we sat down. “What’s the word?” he asked gently.
I couldn’t bring myself to say it out loud, so I pointed to the page.
“That’s the word?” my father wanted to be sure.
“Yes,” I confirmed with trepidation. “Is it bad?”
My father tried unsuccessfully not to laugh. The word was: “so-and-so”.
Another book that severely derailed my attempts at self-education was David Reuben’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (*But Were Afraid to Ask). I was 17 when it originally came out in 1969 and didn’t know not to believe everything the “doctor” said, specifically about homosexuality. It turns out I wasn’t the only teenager struggling with his sexual orientation who was misguided. Fortunately I ignored his “information” and discovered my own truth. By then I was able to laugh at Woody Allen’s wacky 1972 film “adaptation”.
I devoured movie tie-ins. I remember Funny Girl (Pocket Books), Thoroughly Modern Millie (Bantam), and (surreptitiously) Reflections in a Golden Eye (Bantam). I didn’t distinguish between novelizations of feature films, often with “16 pages of photos from the upcoming movie,” and adaptations of bestselling novels. When I learned that the Sound of Music was based on the real-life Trapp Family Singers, I bought a paperback of Maria’s autobiographical account, justifying my purchase by writing a report entitled “The Trapp Family Singers and The Sound of Music”.
Now paperbacks proliferate. There are mass market and trade paperbacks, paperback originals, and who knows what all else. In American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street, Paula Rabinowitz investigates the role of paperback books in democratizing access to literature. I may not have been scouring the wire racks at drugstores and bus stations, but I sure did love me my “pocket books”.