“Do you remember the first adult book you read as a child?” asks Danielle in an interesting post on A Work in Progress. In trying to answer it myself, I parsed the question as “Do you remember your the first book that had sex in it?”. This is clearly a special usage of the word “adult”, and occurs because of the way one usually defines “adult” in daily conversation.
Most of us have, as children, read one or more of the classic novels and some of them dealt with rather pressing issues that might be termed adult. But, nowhere in my childhood reading of the stories of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Jack London or the Bronte sisters did I ever think, “This is amazing. But I am not supposed to be reading this!” When Edmond Dantes escaped from the Chateau d’If and embarked upon his revenge, I was all enthralled by the thrill of the chase, but I don’t recall dwelling too long on his anguish at losing Mercedes. It didn’t mean too much at the time. Monte Cristo was a wonderful story, but it didn’t occur to me to consider it an adult book.
The realization of reading a grown-up book has to do with age of course, but it has also to do with the reader’s understanding of the language. It is possible for a child to understand that Elizabeth Bennet or Eleanor Dashwood are incredible women. However, the added layer that they might be desirable because of their wonderful personalities did not register to me as a ten/eleven-year old boy because I was too young and because the language of Jane Austen was too subtle. This is one of the reasons that, for many of us, the first experience of reading a grown-up book and knowing that it is a grown up book, comes with books that are less subtle about adult issues, primarily sex.
Thus, the first “forbidden” book that I recall reading is Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal, which I found in the house, leafed through for a while, and shortly came upon a significant page. I was probably thirteen around the time. Seven years later, when I saw The Day of the Jackal on the big screen, I recall being disappointed that the “scene of interest” was grainy and indistinct compared to the idealized steel-blue and white in which I had visualized it. This was followed by two or three Sidney Sheldon novels whose names I do not recall. It would be a couple more years before my mother – inadvertently or knowingly? – welcomed me to the grown-up fold by suggesting that I read Sheldon’s If Tomorrow Comes, which actually was a very captivating story. But it would be the last time I read a Sidney Sheldon novel. Did it cease to be enjoyable if one read it in the open ?