The first time I read Giovanni's Room I couldn't help but feel that the novel was reading me. Every few pages, I'd come across a passage of James Baldwin's writing that reached through time and rang so impossibly true to my own experiences and the conversations I was having with the gay men in my life. "Confusion is a luxury which only the very, very young can possibly afford and you are not that young anymore," Jacques says to David during a polite spat at a bar. When I read that sentence, I threw down my copy of the book, yelled "Shade!" in my empty bedroom, and burst out laughing. A deep, good laugh. A species of laughter usually reserved for brunch with best friends and bitter queens, respectively.
What a moment — to feel that a novel was as interested in speaking to my life as I was in searching for a reflection of my life in its pages. I've read Giovanni's Room three or four times in the last few years, always with the sense that I'm catching up with a friend I love but know better than to loan money to.
If you're a black gay guy, or a woman, or pretty much anyone but a straight white man, I imagine you understand just how powerful — and rare — it is to feel that a classic work of literature relates to your life. Rather than eavesdropping on "One Of The Greats," you've been invited into the conversation itself. That is why I read; those are the kinds of books I return to again and again.
No title in literature is quite as shady as "classic." And so, knowing that, I guess when I say "classic gay books," I mean "books that, decades, and sometimes even centuries later, would still love to sit down with you, spill tea, and tell you about yourself."
Last night, after putting together the list of books included below and agonizing, frankly, over the fact that I surely have left some great books off, I went home. The wind was raging outside, so I pulled the covers up to my neck, grabbed my paperback copy of Andrew Holleran's Dancer From The Dance, and turned to a dog-eared page: "Go out dancing tonight, my dear, and go home with someone, and if the love doesn't last beyond the morning, then know I love you."
"Giovanni's Room" by James Baldwin"Death in Venice" by Thomas Mann"Kiss of the Spider Woman" by Manuel Puig"Our Lady of the Flowers" by Jean Genet"Remembrance of Things Past" by Marcel Proust"The Immoralist" by Andre Gide"The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde"Billy Budd" by Herman Melville"Ceremonies" by Essex Hemphill"A Boy's Own Story" by Edmund White"Dancer From The Dance" by Andrew Holleran"Maurice" by E.M. Forster"The City and the Pillar" by Gore Vidal"Confessions of a Mask" by Yukio Mishima"Brideshead Revisited" by Evelyn Waugh"City Of Night" by John Rechy"Other Voices, Other Rooms" by Truman Capote"Myra Breckinridg/Myron" by Gore Vidal"A Single Man" by Christopher Isherwood"Another Country" by James Baldwin"The Swimming Pool Library" by Alan Hollinghurst"The Confessions Of Young Torless" by Robert Musil"Eustace Chisholm and the Works" by James Purdy"Tales of the City" Armistead Maupin"Faggots" by Larry Kramer"Gods and Monsters" by Christopher Bram"And The Band Played On" by Randy Shilts"The Celluloid Closet" by Vito Russo"The Man With Night Sweats" by Thom Gunn"Naked Lunch" by William S. Burroughs"The Charioteer" by Mary Renault"At Swim, Two Boys" by Jamie O'Neill"Becoming A Man" by Paul Monette"Covering" by Kenji Yoshino"Invisible Life" by E. Lynn Harris"Before Night Falls" by Reinaldo Arenas
How Many Of These Classic Gay Books Have You Read?
There is no such thing as being late to reading a great book. Look up some of the titles on this list and go in. After all, as Andrew Holleran writes in "Dancer From the Dance": "My dear, whole lives have been wasted chasing dick." Welp.
If someone brings up "A Single Man" at brunch, you don't bat an eyelash. You've been there, done that, and got the first edition. And to think, you're just getting started. What are you going to read next? Don't be shy. As Paul Monette says, “The problem with secret crushes: in the absence of requital the love turns bitter.”
Your reading appetite is absolutely voracious, my dear. You should give your friends some recommendations and share the wealth. Truman Capote was basically talking about your taste for books when he wrote, in "Other Voices, Other Rooms," that "the brain may take advice, but not the heart, and love, having no geography, knows no boundaries."