Sock Drawer Books


James Joyce. Henry Miller. D. H. Lawrence. John Cleland. Vladimir Nabokov.

Books that went on trial. Books that were “filthy.”

I don’t understand the judgment, frankly. No one forces anyone to pick up Tropic of Cancer. Someone MIGHT force you to read Ulysses but only if you’re working toward an advanced degree in Irish literature. As for Lady Chatterly’s Lover? All I remember of it is a Yorkshire workman describing to an upper class woman the functions of her anatomy, “Here tha shits, here tha pisses…”

My dad had most of this “filth” on his bookshelves. 18th century filth like Fanny Hill which, I just learned, has the distinction of being the novel banned for the longest time. Well, the novel was a new form (hence the word ‘novel’) in the 18th century so it would have been difficult to ban one before they started being written. There was Henry Miller filth, Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. There were other more contemporary dubious works such as The Carpetbaggers. There was also Lolita.

For a while these books were stashed in my dad’s sock drawer in our house in Nebraska. He also kept caramels there. I’m sure it was bait. My mom had very narrow and conventional ideas about sexuality. My dad said openly he didn’t want me to grow up like that.

As I grew older, and we moved to Colorado, and they built a house, my dad’s bookshelf was in the basement (where he couldn’t even go since he was in a wheelchair) the “sock drawer” books were on a shelf at my eye level. I knew they were “filthy” because my mom had said so.

I didn’t read Henry Miller until I was in my late 20s, and I liked his books very much. I liked the style in which they were written, I liked the world Miller was exploring, I liked the fact that he entered that world comparatively late in life. By then I’d had sexual experiences of my own and I knew what it was, basically a blind drive mixed with emotion, idealism, yearning, hope and fear. I was involved with a man whose sexuality was complicated. Henry Miller’s books were friends, not filth.

Yesterday I spent some time with my wonderful neighbor who’s now reading one of the non-Harry Potter books by J. K. Rowling. I asked her if it were good and she said, “The part I’m in now has a lot of rough language, but that’s all right. The character would use that kind of talk. I don’t like it, but it couldn’t be any other way.”

And there, folks, is any reasonable person’s stance on literary “filth.”

As for this post, I don’t know. The first thing I thought when I saw the word “filthy” was my mom hitting my hand, knocking my little child finger out of my nose saying, “That’s a dirty, filthy, habit.” She was right, of course. It’s the most common cause of sinus infections in children.

8 thoughts on “Sock Drawer Books

  1. I have always wondered about people for whom strict rules of conduct applied. I’m all for class and grace–but the ones I know who are the most hung up on rules, generally harbor something deep down they don’t want to face. But that’s just me playing amateur Freud:).

    • I agree with you. I don’t understand how people can exclude anything (except from their own behavior) since EVERYTHING is out there in our world. Anyone can choose not to do something, not to read something, think something, believe something, but I think that’s a personal thing and doesn’t need to be foisted on others who are following their own path of discovery.

  2. I love to read and must admit that I read many of the so-called “good” books. In a lifetime there is enough time to read and most of the books you mention in your remarks above I have read. I particularly remember Ulysses, as Mr. Swiss got a free offer. Anyow he gave up after the first few pages, being german mother tongue I suppose it was too much for him, so I read it. One of the books I never really finished, although did get more than half way. The day in the life of sort of thing, but still wonder whether I really understood what I read. My dad brought two books home from work, Lady Chatterly and Fanny Hill. His attempts at good literature. Not in the sock drawer, but behind the book pile we had, although I found them all the same. Oh the wonders of literature, especially when you are a teenager. 🙂

    • I’d rather attempt Goeth in German than deal with Joyce’s solipsistic self-indulgence in Ulysses. I got about 100 pages in and thought, “You are not so important to me that I need to decipher this linguistic vomit.” I was not a good student. I didn’t “get” the “study” of literature, really. But at least I got my degree and that led to a career and that was probably the whole point, after all. I did like The Dubliners. Beautifully written. There’s a really nice film about Joyce, too, kind of new, mostly about his wife, it’s title is Nora.

      It’s funny because I met one of my life’s great champions helping a friend present a dialogue to this woman’s class. My friend had written a little play based on Ulysses and I read the female part. After, the professor, my friend and I went out for beer. She was the head of the English department and loved my writing. She wanted me to teach creative writing, but that department said, “No. Martha doesn’t have a degree in creative writing.” The irony THERE is no one with a degree in creative writing would write Ulysses. They’d be all about “narrative arc” and that stuff. The Brothers Path is somewhat experimental and that’s led to some pretty interesting comments from people who think it should be some other thing. Life is really funny in its intricate little turnings.

  3. My attempts to read ‘good’ books are what gave rise to my cynical view of the literati: that they glorify obscurity partly to make themselves feel intellectually superior, and partly because they’re not game to say it’s rubbish in case they’re missing something. If that’s how they get their jollies, good for them, but I don’t have to go along with it. To me, a lot of it just bad writing and sloppy self-indulgence. Boring.
    I am equally bored by the (equally self-indulgent) explicit sex scenes that would once have been considered filth beyond imagining, and now seem almost obligatory if you’re aiming for a best seller. Gimme a break! Am I supposed to CARE about their g-spots?

    • Definitely agree with you about “literature.” I hated grad school and grad school hated me. 🙂 I’m proud of that.

      I think Henry Miller wrote about sex in a very non-salacious way, definitely not porn — in fact, most of those books were not about sex. Sex was an aspect of a moment in a character’s life. What I read about “X Shades of Grey” disgusted me. It seemed a lot less interesting, less purposeful, and with less meaning than Marquis de Sade’s “Justine.” I don’t know.

      I’d like to live in a world where stupidity was considered filth. 🙂

      • Oh yes, how good would that be! Although in this day and age, it wouldn’t really make much difference, would it.
        Sex is an integral part of life, and when it’s relevant to a character’s development, it should be there. But the Shades of Grey nonsense seemed to me (tho I didn’t read it either) like the worst sort of cynically calculated, lowest-common-denominator ploy to sell up a storm. Very depressing that it succeeded.

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