What’s a Book You Read in Secret?

For the first Novel Gazing, send us your stories of covert literary indulgence

Submissions for Novel Gazing are open through September 15.

Nobody policed what I read when I was a kid. It was pointless to try. I picked up any book that was left on a low shelf, and I spent a lot of time on my own in the library, and by the time I was 11 there was a used bookstore in walking distance. I read Clan of the Cave Bear, with its semi-graphic Neanderthal rape, in the living room on a family vacation when I was 12. I picked up the brilliant but polymorphously perverse Geek Love around age 10, when it first came out in paperback, because someone left it within reach; I remember trying to puzzle out what it meant to “sell one’s cherry.” In seventh grade, I turned in a book report on Toni Morrison’s gorgeous epic Song of Solomon, and the teacher asked if my mother knew I was reading it, presumably because it was supposed to be (and, to a great degree, was) above my head. I said it was her copy.

But even though I felt no self-consciousness about taking on wildly age-inappropriate texts, there’s one book I remember reading in secret: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Not because it was considered unsuitable, not because it was controversial — just because I happened to be in the middle of it when I was supposed to be in a high school class. It wasn’t an easy book to read, or for me to relate to, and I needed a stretch of time to concentrate on it uninterrupted, and I also needed to not go to precal or American history or wherever I was meant to be that period. So I hid in one of the first-floor bathrooms, the one with a window, and contemplated Stephen Dedalus contemplating the eternity of hell.

People have all sorts of reasons for hiding what they read. Maybe they’re ducking the watchful eye of an oppressive family, or an oppressive political regime. Maybe they’re embarrassed by their fascination with teen wizards, sparkly vampires, or conspiracies. Maybe they’re reading a book that’s celebrated in one context, but looked at askance in another: Darwin at a church retreat, Ayn Rand at a DSA meeting.

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For the inaugural Novel Gazing, Electric Lit’s new essay series about the way reading shapes our lives, we want your stories of covert literary indulgence, from comic books under plain covers to Anais Nin under the sheets. Tell us about the time you tried to hide your Bible from your colleagues at the science conference, or told summer camp friends that the poetry you were reading under the covers was porn. (I did this one too. Twenty-five years later, I can finally admit: It was Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle. Sorry to deceive you, cool camp jerks.) Reflect on your first surreptitious forays into feminist essays or queer comics or Afrofuturism, and why you felt you had to hide. Share your experience reading Marx under McCarthyism or Rushdie in Iran. Remember that these books don’t have to be novels, and they don’t even have to be books: we’ll consider essays on television, film, art, and theater, as long as the focus is on stories you consumed in secret.

Essays should not be longer than 4,000 words or shorter than 800, and payment is $60 per piece. Submissions will open on September 5 and remain open through September 15. That gives you two weeks to think and write about all the books (and other narrative objects) you’ve loved so much you read them in spite of embarrassment, anxiety, repression, or shame.

I can’t wait to hear your stories.

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