Bookshelves are always such showoffy affairs. We don’t usually fill them with books we are reading, but instead with books we have read, like a little museum dedicated to our own literacy. I don’t know about you, but the first thing I look at in somebody else’s house is their bookshelf, and it goes a long way toward helping me determine what I think about them. I am, for example, always tempted to walk out if there is any Ayn Rand on display. Nothing turns me off faster than a house where the bookshelf is full of college textbooks and Oprah book club books. Or worse still, a house with no books at all. I know it makes me a bit of a snob, but we all must have our standards.
But I may soon be one of those people. The ebook has made physical books redundant, and I’ve been unburdening myself of anything I can own digitally. Additionally, the web has made it easy to locate even the most obscure book, and so I’ve been getting rid of anything I don’t have an immediate need for and can easily replace. With my dwindling bookshelf, I don’t know what people will think about me, but, then, I used to pick through people’s record collections when they excused themselves and went to the bathroom. I can’t do that anymore, as many people’s music collection is now hidden on their computer. I got used to it. But I wonder what our future selves will use to judge their acquaintances. Maybe we’ll be left rooting through their toiletries.
I’d like to suggest another alternative. Since bookshelves are already like little galleries of our reading habits, let’s take this a step further and actually curate the things. Put together, say, a collection of the sleaziest novels of the 20th century — here’s a few to start: “Butterfly” by James M. Cain and “Flowers in the Attic” by V.C. Andrews. John Waters collects novelizations of very bad movies, but I feel sure they’re lost in his overstuffed bookshelves; make this your hobby and start looking for that book adaptation of “Leprechaun in Space.” There’s a woman in town who collects lesbian pulp novels — I hope she displays them on their own bookshelves and doesn’t mix them in with whatever else she’s reading. Make your bookshelf a real conversation piece! Exclusively collect books written from the pathologically, hysterically anticommunist viewpoints of the ’60s, such as John Stormer’s “None Dare Call It Treason.”
Or you could collect and display work by local authors. And I’m not talking about, say, Scott Fitzgerald or Gary Keillor — no, that’s too easy. I refer instead to the reams of pulp and popular literature produced by now-mostly-forgotten writers. You could, for instance, load up on prison diaries, including “One Bad Dude” by Ted Jefferson or “All the Cake I Want” by J.V. Adams. There’s a wealth of novels out there that aren’t likely ever to find themselves as ebooks, or won’t ever attract much attention outside fans of specific genres. Here are three of my suggestions to get you started.
“City,” Clifford Simak
Clifford Simak was a gentle-looking man in photos, possessing a toothy smile, a large forehead topped by gray-white hair that he kept neatly brushed over his thinning pate, and wire-rimmed glasses that gave him the look of a college professor. Simak worked as a news editor at the Minneapolis Star and also worked for the Tribune. He retired in 1976. From his biography and his photographs, you wouldn’t necessarily guess at a startling imagination. After all, he had a day job that discouraged making stuff up. But Simak was also an author of science fiction, and, in a field famous for vaulting leaps of invention, he was prodigious. He wrote smart, neat short stories, such as the first I ever read by him, titled “Skirmish.” In this story, a man finds messages to him from his typewriter, written by the typewriter, letting him know the typewriter is no longer his slave. Aliens have landed in the form of skittering, mouselike robots, possessing a robot intelligence and produced by a robot evolution. To them, the machines of man are in thrall to himkind, and they are taking steps to free the slaves. Simak’s short stories tended to be better than his novels, which were fascinating but lacked focus, but he produced one undisputed masterpiece, and it is one of the wildest science-fiction novels ever produced.
“City,” first published in 1952, is a story told by intelligent dogs about the men who once ruled the Earth, long after men have left the planet, and have been relegated to the status of myth by the pets they left behind. The book is episodic, with each chapter taking place years — and sometimes eons — after the previous one. These are linked only by an aging robot the humans also left behind, who nursemaids successive generations of his family’s pet dogs, instructing them as their intelligence blossoms. It’s a vision of the future that begins where most visions end, at the moment of humanity’s end. Then it finds a story beyond that — one that, almost 60 years after it was written, remains enormously compelling and moving. There’s something about Simak’s writing that remains startling to this day — he often wrote science fiction in rural settings, as opposed to the skybound urban megalopolisis that appeared in the writing of many of his contemporaries. He wrote about gentlemen farmers who loved their dogs, and “City” sums up many of his themes in one masterpiece. This is the rural future after the death of the gentleman farmer, and the Earth is ruled by his logical successor: the dogs he loved.
The Johnny Fletcher mysteries, Frank Gruber
Minnesota native Frank Gruber churned out a feverish amount of pulp, from westerns to historical fiction, as well as helping pen the screenplays for such minor noir films as “Johnny Angel” and “The Mask of Dimitrios.” He once bragged that he could write a complete mystery novel in 16 days, and he wrote a lot of them, many featuring a crooked team consisting of the unctuous Johnny Fletcher and the somewhat dense Sam Cragg. The pair rambled the big cities in America, setting up on street corners to sell a trash body building manuals (“Every Man a Sampson, the physical secrets of the Aztapache Indians.”)
Written mostly in the 1940s, the books were rereleased in the ’70s with covers that made them look like Mike Hammer books, tough and sleazy, but the actual contents were often surprisingly gentle. Fletcher and Cragg never swore, for example, and sex was limited to casual flirtation. Generally, Gruber’s duo stumbled across a body and found themselves chased by the cops, leading to a mad scramble to solve a case before Fletcher and Cragg wound up behind bars. Gruber’s real talent, however, was in his unusual plotting — because Fletcher and Cragg were scam artists, their adventures often had them butting heads with other scamsters, from song poem outfits to thieving comic book artists. It’s a vision of America as a collection of hustlers, none of whom make an honest buck, with everyone sticking their hands in everyone else’s pockets. Oddly, Gruber doesn’t seem to mind his bleak vision of capitalism as unfettered theft, casting con artists as heroes. It’s only really a problem in Gruber’s world when someone dies as a result, which they do — all the time.
‘The Crowded Bed,’ Henry Sackerman
Author Henry Sackerman was actually a fellow named Harold Kahm, who was a fixture at the University of Minnesota’s bohemian West Bank during the ’60s and ’70s, where he led regular discussion groups at a student hangout called the Coffee House Extempore. Kahm wrote a few books under his own name, including a very popular how-to on starting your own business. But, as Henry Sackerman, Kahm wrote a series of novels all dealing with one subject: group marriage. His first book, 1967’s “The Crowded Bed,” told of a girl and the two men who love her, and the delicate negotiations that make it possible for her to have them both. His second book, “The West Bank Group” (1970), tells of a rather wacky social scientist who pays University of Minnesota students to cohabit in group relationships. And his last in the trilogy, “The Love Bomb,” looks at Earth through the eyes of a visiting alien who just can’t get it on unless there’s another guy making his chick at the same time.
Kahm was fortunate to be writing in the ’60s and early ’70s, when soft-core novels dealing with explicit and vaguely pervy themes had gone mainstream. In any other decade, he would have been hard-pressed to find a publisher, as he wasn’t a good enough writer to inspire interest from a mainstream publishing house, but his sex scenes were too tame to work as porn. His stories rely on stock characters — the sensitive young man, the school jock, the airheaded female — and even those are written with the broad brushstrokes of a cartoon. His plotting is often plodding, although sometimes hilariously so: In “The Love Bomb,” he creates an alien who, despite his ultra-sophisticated technology, is such a naïf that he can’t help but repeatedly get arrested the moment he lands on Earth. Which, if you think about it, is very likely what would actually happen to a visiting alien.
But if Kahm’s books fail as art, they succeed as novelty. They’re fascinating in the way that Ed Wood’s crossdressing film “Glen or Glenda” is fascinating: Despite possessing only a rudimentary skill in their chosen fields, both Kahm and Wood endeavor to explore an unpopular passion. With Ed Wood, it’s a love of female clothes, while with Harold Kahm’s, it’s a love of multiple sexual partners. This is not idle speculation, either: In a 1996 interview with City Pages, Kahm admitted that he had actually been in a group marriage for quite a while, and missed it. Further, in his books, particularly in “The Love Bomb,” he speaks of group marriage in the classic terms of the fetishist. His characters, perhaps reflecting Kahm’s own experiences, simply cannot have sex without multiple partners. Let’s see Garrison Keillor tackle that subject.