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Books I Loved Too Soon

October 11, 2011

The year was 1986. I was in grade one, and I was bored as fuck. That’s the school year where you spend most of your time learning to read, but I already knew how, so instead I sat there all day worrying about the future as I watched my colleagues struggle with phonics. (I knew what a nerd was. I shivered in the deepening chill as the sun set on my social acceptability.) After school I’d go snooping around the house for stuff to read. My parents had all kinds of weird books. A six-year-old had no business reading most of them, but I needed a challenge after another pointless day of rerererererereading the Luc et Martine series as my tiny comrades were once again washed away by the tides of illiteracy. I’d pull anything off a shelf if it looked interesting.

Some of those materials really stuck with me and began shaping my character long before I was consciously aware of their influence. Some of my favourites follow.

1. Whack Your Porcupine and Never Eat Anything Bigger Than Your Head (B. Kliban, the ’70s, both [unbelievably!] out of print)

Oddly shaped books full of odd one-panel cartoons, these should really be perused by anyone who takes comedy seriously. Short as I was at the time, most of the humour went over my head. I distinctly remember being especially confused by this one:

In hindsight, with all due respect to Gary Larson, this is unquestionably the funniest single-panel cartoon ever drawn by man. It’s already hilarious and then the title makes it eight hundred times funnier. But I remember scrutinizing the hell out of it in the mid-’80s, wondering why that black guy was there. Your eyes naturally gravitated that way because all the other people were white (as was nearly everything else in the panel), yet the general was talking to one of the other men, so it was confusing, right? Why draw a really eye-catching black guy when he wasn’t even part of the joke? As far as I was concerned, this was a serious misstep on Kliban’s part. Also curious were the stature and appearance of the dude to the black guy’s left. Why did he look like that? Was eating watermelons the only thing a short, nerdy-looking dude was good for, or something? Were the others going to go off and, like, fight a war?

These books offered page after page of mystery. Occasionally I’d get one of the jokes, which was a bonus. And there were a couple of six-panel “poems” that stuck in my head (“Groin, grin, carnal sin, / Pretty, city, Grandma’s titty”). Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if I even owe some of my poetic style/content to Kliban. If he were still alive I would write him a fan letter.

If you’re looking for thousands of laughs, stop by your local library I guess (why the eff are these works of mad crazy brilliance out of print?!) and borrow one of Kliban’s books. They’re all great. Cat, by the way, is still in print and is nowhere near as cute-kittycatty as the associated merchandise might lead you to believe. Most of the time it’s as inappropriate as the others.

2. Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes (Harry Graham, originally published 1899 [!], bunch of subsequent eds.)

I think this might technically be a children’s book, but either way, the content is refreshingly horrifying. Just page after page of charming little quatrains about kids getting maimed, killed, etc. while their parents look on with total indifference. This one, for some reason, has stayed with me for 25+ years:

Mary McBickle choked on a pickle,
Screamed, “I’m dying!” and promptly did.
“Just as well,” her father** said,
“She might have been an invalid.”

(** It may be “mother.” I don’t remember. It makes no difference anyhow.)

Classic gold. Kids should be reading more stuff like that and less sappy bullshit about feelings and sharing, am I right? Any nieces and nephews I accumulate over the years will receive this book on their fifth birthdays. If I have to teach them how to read so they can appreciate it properly, then damn it, I will.

You can get this little volume anywhere. Do it. Do it!!

3. Playboy magazine (various authors)

There was a time when my dad had a subscription. The issues were kept out of sight because my mom wasn’t really down with that business, but I knew where to find them, and find them I did. “I only read it for the articles” is something that gets said tongue-in-cheekily about Playboy a lot, but in my case it was really true. I was all about the words, friends. For realsies. Okay, and finding the bunny on the cover.

(Just to stay true to my thesis, I’ll pass on posting a photo for this one.)

4. Story of My Life (Jay McInerney, 1988)

Someone actually gave me a copy of this when I was 16 or so, which was sort of thrillingly scandalous on her part. There was no way she could have known that I’d read it in grade five. For some reason my dad, who generally didn’t/doesn’t go around reading novels, had a hardcover copy. (Possibly a first edition! Ooooooo!) Inevitably, I found it. The protagonist is an emotionally damaged drug-addicted nymphomaniac, and every page of the book is rife with sex and drug scenes, to say nothing of the admirable amount of gratuitous profanity. The wealth of terminology and sheer variety of physical activities presented in the story is staggering–as are the characters, most of the time. I didn’t have a clue what the hell I was reading about, but there was something about the style that kept me interested. First-person, present tense, really colloquial, fast-paced. That book taught me a lot about writing. (Among other things.) Here’s a link to an excerpt, if you dare:

Kids’ books can be pretty lame. (The Berenstain motherfucking Bears, are you kidding me?) If you have children, and especially if you have language-obsessed children who know how to read, I can pretty much guarantee you that they’re treating your book collection like a library whenever you aren’t around. Assure them a bright and lucrative literary future like mine [wink!] by stocking your shelves with a diverse wealth of options: poetry and prose, humorous and serious writing. The adult content will bide its time in their wee minds, and they’ll get that Kliban joke eventually.

One Comment leave one →
  1. joe permalink
    November 13, 2015 7:01 pm

    had a similar experience with the Kliban book around the same age. wasn’t it “nitty gritty grandma’s titty”?

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