Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Tastemakers

As you might have guessed from yesterday's post, I have just finished reading Black Boy, Richard Wright's heartbreaking memoir of growing up in Mississippi in the 1920s.

I see from the Introduction to the 1998 HarperPerennial edition that the best-selling book was a Book-of-the-Month Club main selection in 1945. Wright's novel Native Son was a main selection in 1940. Why, I wondered, weren't these books on the shelves of the house I grew up in, among all those other books from the BOMC.

I grew up in racially segregated Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Black Boy was not well received in the South. A devastating critique of Southern culture, it was roundly condemned in the Southern press and banned from libraries.

But I'm guessing that's not why it wasn't on my family's bookshelves. Certainly, overt racism was not a part of my upbringing. No, I would guess that my mother -- for it was she who mostly read the books -- simply found an alternate selection more to her liking, such as James Thurber's The Thurber Carnival.

As for Native Son in 1940, Mom appears to have preferred Van Wyck Brooks' New England: Indian Summer.

In any case, superb books entered our house from the BOMC. Among classics from the early 1940s: Bernard de Voto, The Year of Decision: 1946; Louise Dickinson Rich, We Took To the Woods; Esther Forbes, Paul Revere and the World He Lived In; Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Cross Creek; Margaret Leech, Reveille in Washington; and so on.

Listing these remembered authors and titles says something about my mother's tastes -- and the tastes of the BOMC -- tastes that seeped into my consciousness by osmosis. I ended up reading all of these books as an adult, a kind of delayed gratification. A few BOMC selections were probably my father's choices: Bill Maudlin, Up Front; Ted W. Lawson, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. It was mostly Dad's choices that I read as a child.

As I was pondering this post, I googled to see what had become of the BOMC. It was taken over by Doubleday Direct in 2000, a company partly owned by Bertelsmann, absorbed completely by Bertelsmann in 2007, and sold to a private equity firm in 2008. And, lordy, look what has happened to the venerable BOMC of my family's bookshelves.

Thanks, Mom and Dad. Thanks, BOMC of the 1940s.