The American-English phrase (have you) booked any good, or bad, Reds lately? is a jocular alteration of the conversational gambit (have you) read any (good) books lately?.
The earliest occurrence that I have found of the conversational gambit (have you) read any (good) books lately? is from the column Sketches from the Odd, by ‘Philander Johnson’, published in The Evening Star (Washington, District of Columbia) of Saturday 4th November 1899:
Thought He Had Been Noticing.
Willie Wishington was trying to be conversational, but the young woman wore glasses and looked severe and her mother surveyed the scene with an expression of austere toleration. Willie ought to have known better than to call on Monday afternoon, anyhow.
“Have you read any books lately?” asked Willie with the inane grin which he uses in society.
“Yes,” answered the girl.
“Been some pretty good ones written lately, don’t you think?”
“I haven’t read any recent novels,” she answered.
“You ought to read some.”
“I find ample entertainment in the classics,” was the rejoinder, while her mother looked on with an approving smile.
“Oh, yes. Shakespeare, I suppose. He’s a good old classic.”
“I read Shakespeare occasionally when I read English. I also read Corneille and Moliere and Goethe and Schiller, but only for diversion. Philosophic studies are my especial occupation at present.”
“By Jove!” exclaimed Willie admiringly. “You’re getting to be a regular blue-stocking, aren’t you!”
“A what!” repeated the young woman’s mother grimly as she arose to her feet.
“Why—a blue stocking—you know—that is.”
“No explanations are necessary. Amelia, I am going to tell the servant to take in the clothes line at once. Hereafter neither of us will be at home to Mr. Wishington.
Schaeffer O’Neill related the following anecdote in the Alton Evening Telegraph (Alton, Illinois) of Friday 31st May 1929:
A STORY FROM THE WEST COAST:
It seems that King Vidor 1, the movie director, dined recently at the Hearst Ranch at San Simeon, but was late in arriving because his car had been delayed by a fog along the road.
He slipped into his place, turned to the lady on his left, and was about to tell her, a little patronizingly, about the perils men encounter in driving machines.
Just then he saw her name on her place card—Lady Drummond Hay 2—the aviatrix, Zeppelin passenger, etc.—
And he asked her if she had read any good books lately.
1 King Wallis Vidor (1894-1982) was a U.S. film director, film producer and screenwriter.
2 Grace Marguerite Hay Drummond-Hay (née Grace Marguerite Lethbridge – 1895-1946) was a British journalist and aeronaut.
In the phrase (have you) booked any good, or bad, Reds lately?:
– the verb book means to take the personal details of (a suspect or offender) with a view to bringing a prosecution;
– the noun Red means Communist—cf. the phrases reds under the bed and better red than dead – better dead than red.
The earliest occurrence that I have found of the phrase (have you) booked any good, or bad, Reds lately? is from the column The Once Over, by H. I. Phillips, published in several U.S. newspapers on Thursday 15th May 1941—for example in the St. Joseph News-Press (St. Joseph, Missouri):
Joe Reichman 3 says the query of the day is not “Have you read any good books lately?” but “Have you booked any bad Reds lately?”
3 This perhaps refers to the U.S. pianist and band leader Joe Reichman (1898-1970).
The second-earliest occurrence of the phrase that I have found is from the column Washington Scene, by George Dixon, published in several U.S. newspapers on Monday 12th January 1948—for example in The Montana Standard (Butte, Montana):
Silly switch on an old bromide:
A literary-minded dame goes up to Rep. J. Parnell Thomas 4, chairman of the House committee on un-American activities 5 and tries to open the conversation on a literary theme but gets her tongue twisted.
“Booked any good Reds lately?” she asks.
4 A stockbroker and politician, John Parnell Thomas (1895-1970) was Chairman of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947-48.
5 Established in 1938, the House Committee on Un-American Activities was a committee of the House of Representatives that investigated allegations of Communist activity in the USA.
The following cartoon from Grin and Bear It, by the U.S. cartoonist George Lichty (George Lichtenstein – 1905-1983), was published in The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky) of Sunday 23rd July 1950—in a Riot Squad office, one policeman asks the other:
“Booked any good Reds lately, Sarge?”