Wednesday, July 22, 2020

POPCORN READING: Guest post by Barbara Nickless

Barbara Nickless:
Popcorn Reading

My mother, an English Literature teacher, had a weakness for what she called “popcorn books.” These were books she felt had little value other than to entertain. But what pleasure they gave her! She raced through the likes of Helen MacInnes, Dick Francis, Irwin Shaw, and Ken Follet. (And I would argue that many of these books serve as more than mere entertainments.) She also consumed a steady diet of what she called “important” books by authors like Alexander Solzhenitsyn and William Styron.

Like any good mother guarding her child’s well-being, my mom kept me on a strict regimen of classics like Old Yeller and The Yearling, later followed by Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Dickens, and Victor Hugo. I suppose she considered these the literary equivalent of eating my vegetables, although I found them far more palatable than the broccoli on my plate.

To show how deeply I’d fallen under my mother’s influence, here’s a case in point. When it came time for my middle-school advanced English class to vote for what book we wanted to read, I nominated Thomas Hardy’s Tess of d’Urbervilles. The other eight votes went to The Godfather. I was truly a nerd’s nerd.

My fall into my own popcorn reading happened overnight. It was the summer before I started high school, and my mom had stumbled upon the novels of Peter Benchley. The saltiest, most buttery of popcorn! She had a copy of Benchley’s first novel, Jaws, on her nightstand. I was given strict orders not to read it. She deemed it (correctly, it turns out) as inappropriate for my tender mind and likely to induce nightmares.

If you’re unfamiliar with the cover of the book, go take a look. My mom’s edition included not only the shark and the naked woman, but the words “#1 Superthriller. A Novel of Relentless Terror.”

Now ask yourself how any teenager could not pick up this book.

Every day, when my mom left the house, I slipped into her bedroom. I perched on the edge of her neatly made bed, ready to replace the book and disappear into my room should she return unexpectedly. How deliciously vivid was Benchley’s world of a Long Island resort town terrorized by a monster of the deep. How the pages flew beneath my fingers, my heart pounding over who would fall next into the great shark’s maw. My terror was heightened by the illicitness of what I was doing.

Thus began a lifetime of conflict. Not between my mother and me. But over my own reading lists. What books would share my holidays? Would I spend the long summer months reading War and Peace and Vanity Fair? Or bury my nose in Arthur C. Clark, Larry Niven, and Anne McCaffery? Even as I started an undergraduate degree in literature and felt a sense of accomplishment working my way through James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, I took a break every day at lunch by hiding a copy of A. Merritt’s The Metal Monster or its ilk inside the pages.

At some point, the inner turmoil faded away. I came to value each book for what it offered. The truth is, what we now call beach reading is a vital element in the literary canon. All books entertain. And all books help. After we lost our home in a wildfire, I mentally flew south every night, to the Amazon rainforest via Anne Patchett’s State of Wonder. After a devastating death in the family, I stayed a little closer to home, slipping across the border each night to follow a mother and her son in American Dirt. In between I delighted in mystery novels, tales of espionage, and more than a few books of speculative fiction.

After my mom passed away and it came time to sort through her library, I reveled in her eclectic choices. From Ian Fleming to Norman Mailer to Homer, my mother read—and loved—them all.

That was the greatest gift she gave me.


Barbara Nickless is the author of the award-winning Sydney Parnell crime novels featuring a railway cop and her K9 partner. About the series, Jeffery Deaver promises “you'll fall in love with one of the best characters in thriller fiction.” The series has been optioned for television. Barbara’s essays and short stories have appeared in Writer’s Digest, Criminal Element, Penguin Random House, and other markets. She also teaches creative writing to veterans at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. Barbara is often in the Rocky Mountains where she loves to hike, cave, and drink single malt Scotch—although usually not at the same time. You can find her—and her reading list—at


Jane R said...

What a wonderful story, full of memories. I love the term "popcorn stories". Thanks for reminding me of some of my own memories about my parents, who always encouraged my love of books. And, you brought back memories of Peter Benchley's famous book as well. Hard to forget!

Becky Ross Michael said...

Love this post! Reminded me of reading "Rosemary's Baby" as a teen, all in one evening, while babysitting at my pastor's house:)