I'll never forget my first brush with "Romantica," that subgenre of romance novels with just enough sex content that you wouldn't want to be caught reading it in the DMV. I was 11, rifling through my Mom's closet looking to borrow some shoes (I was a tall kid), when I knocked over the contents of a brown grocery bag. Paperbacks tumbled out all over the floor. Thick ones. As I went to put the book nearest to me back before getting busted, I realized it had a half-naked man on the cover. As I reached around the shoe boxes, I found bag after bag of books -- Westerns, Edwardian, covers with bad '80s hair matched in volume only by the heaving breasts below them. I had come upon Mom's secret stash. I sat on the floor of my mother's closet and learned about the birds AND the bees. There were no 6th-grade appropriate metaphors -- though there were lots of references to quivering members and burning sensations.
My grandmother and mothere had a whole operation going. They'd buy up the "gently used" stock at their local libraries by the bag -- at 25 cents a book, it was a steal -- then divvy them up and trade reading material during family visits over Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter and 4th of July cookouts. On trips to Pennsylvania, my sister and I would be strapped into the back seat, and behind us in the trunk for the five-hour car ride were the dog's cage, snacks for Dad (mostly granola bars and bananas) and unlabeled paper bags full of smut.
Now, my mother was a well-read woman. As a proud English major and former editor, she kept the bookshelves in our house full of everything from the classics to the latest in literary theory and post-modernism. These titles were proudly displayed in mainly leather-bound volumes in a room we called "the library," though it was more of a living room where a piano, Dad's guitars and the family computer resided. It was the first room guests saw when they entered the house, and you can bet a romance novel never graced the shelves.
I was reminded of my maternal line's paper bag-concealed stash when I read Katie Roseman's Wall Street Journal piece today, "Books Women Read When No One Sees The Cover." The piece examines how the privacy allowed by e-readers is fueling a boon in sales of romantica to women -- nearly 40 percent of all new romance books are now purchased in digital form -- and quotes a publisher who says Kindles, iPads and Nooks "are the ultimate brown paper wrapper." "Fifty Shades of Grey," the steamy, now-bestselling novel by E.L. James, has gotten the publicity it has -- including Rosenman's article -- because women are clandestinely (well, until the Today show picked it up) sharing it with every woman they know. Somehow, the idea of women recommending and swapping "sexy" books to and with each other still intrigues people -- especially now they have a more discreet, efficient system for doing it now.
I never found the fact that women enjoy a sexy read all that surprising, but then again, I was an early convert. My grandmother and mother weren't around to see the advent of the e-reader, but if they had been, I bet there would have been a lot more room in the trunk on those trips to Nana and Grandpa's house.