I. Why Join a Book Club?
“Green in Nature is one thing, green in Literature another. Nature and letters seem to have a natural antipathy; bring them together and they tear each other to pieces.”
-Orlando, Virginia Woolf (1928)
That quote from Orlando is the crux of the thing for me – why bother with a book club? – because the sense of frustration that it brings for the author translates into a sense of possibility for the reader. We’re left with the legacy of the imperfect description and it’s up to us, we have to try to glue the two together, life and letters, and all we have to for paste is our own experiences, memories, agendas.
But what if one agenda isn’t enough? That’s where the power of reading communally can be felt: to see the multiplicity of viewpoints made possible by an infinitude of experiences. Even the same conclusions aren’t come to by the same means.
That, combined to the fact that I was moving to London without knowing anyone, was the reason I started a book club.
There was one more reason though, specific to the kind of book club I wanted to start: at that point I wasn’t well read when it came to the LGBTQ canon. As someone who’d largely lived life by the book, coming out was nevertheless a profoundly illiterate experience. For most of the members of the group it’s the complete opposite: stumbling onto books was what profoundly changed their lives and the construction of their identities. Both possibilities really interest me because they get to the primitive root of why reading matters.
You have to remember it’s only very recently it was possible to Google and buy them quickly and safely online. As a teenager my reading habits were shaped by what local second hand bookshops thought were ‘Literature’. It was mostly Jane Austen. Or what our local librarian Mrs. Partridge thought was ‘Literature’ in our 200 square foot public library. It was mostly Danielle Steele. I remember being shocked and confused the first time I found Naked Lunch in a Penguin Edition, the cover art was so different than the usual. My teacher asked me if it was some kind of cookbook when she saw me reading it. I think this kind of teen suburban subsistence as totally typical, but then again, a book club makes it easy to compare notes and see what you’ve been missing.
II. The LGBTQ Library & Archive
But something unique about reading around a topic like LGBTQ literature, the literature of marginalised people, is that reading is an important form of activism, a way of fulfilling the work of scholars and activists who have fought to preserve a history long pitted against antagonism, discrimination, erasure.
Fittingly enough today is the 516th anniversary of one particularly nasty Bonfire of the Vanities held by Savonarola in Florence. He was a mad preacher-prophet and his idea of a party was burning literally thousands of books and objects he thought were sinful: clothing, makeup, sculpture, paintings, Boccaccio, Ariosto, some Petrarch, and as many of the works of Sappho he could get his hands on.
Sappho sticks with me in particular. We still have the Decameron, but the Bonfire of the Vanities is one reason why complete poems of hers don’t make it. She’s a poster child for what has happened to the LGBTQ archive stretching into the distant past: chipped away, scratched off, torn apart, her odes to other women were deemed unseemly and consigned to the flames.
But she’s also an example of the power of readership: her works survive because readers wrote them out, copied them onto papyrus, Herodotus into his histories, Catullus into Latin translation. To the extent that reading is dedicated to remembering, reading is a great act of conservation that anyone can perform.
And we have to keep reading, and digging, and asking people about themselves, and asking to look into their notebooks, because there are vast gaps in the LGBTQ archive today. In their introduction to a historical work Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons reconstruct from eyewitness accounts and police records an example of the earliest known gay riot in LA in 1959, ten years before Stonewall. “On a seedy stretch of Main Street between two of LA’s older gay bars, the Waldorf and Harold’s”, they literally publish the story of Cooper’s Donuts out of the oblivion it had otherwise been filed under:
“Most patrons were queens, butch hustlers, their friends, and their customers. Many were Latino or Black. The queens wore the half drag of Capri pants and men’s shirts, which, they hoped, would enable them to escape arrest for ‘masquerading’ as women (though they knotted their shirts at the midriff in the feminine style of the day). Because the patrons were obvious or suspected homosexuals, Cooper’s became a frequent target for the LAPD, which prided itself on being one of the most determined enemies of homosexuality in the nation.
That night in May, a patrol car circled the block a few times, parked, and two police officers entered Cooper’s, demanding to see identification from those seated at the long rectangular counter. As usual, the police stated no reasons for their harassment….But the crowd rebelled…Under seige, the officers fled to their squad car…summmoning backup. More squad cars arrived…Rioters were arrested and jailed.”
Despite the thriving gay and lesbian lives they uncover and discuss spanning the late 19th and early 20th century, the authors can’t help but say that “our work has sometimes been frustrating because we know that much has been lost.” One great zine responding to exactly this frustration is “Out of the Closets and Into the Libraries”, by Conrad – it’s available for free online.
Preserving past anecdotes, from Sappho to Stonewall, has impacted publishing. For instance in an article on “Millennial Thoughts on Gay Archives, Gay Biography, and Gay Library History” (Libraries & Culture 35, 2000, pp 88-102), James Carmichael notes:
Great progress has been made in the quantity and quality of historical and biographical studies in lesbigay history over the past quarter-century. In 1995, the high-water mark of gay publishing to date, over 244 nonfiction monographs were published, of which at least 27 were historical or biographical. Compare this figure to only twenty-seven monographs in 1970 (one historical plus two literary histories), thirty in 1981 (three his torical plus two literary histories), and forty-three in 1985 (no history per se but two literary histories), and one begins to appreciate what the numerical trends say about the growth of gay studies in the past decade.
Most importantly, he says, during that time a few hundred archives for LGBTQ cropped up across the US and US.
But these are the same institutions, he notes, which often used bizarre ways of censoring their own rich archives: destroying records, using misleading cataloguing descriptions making them unfindable, not cataloguing them at all, euphemizing their contents, or literally picking and choosing what to keep of archives, and what to discard on the basis of outdated notions of pornography. Again, think of what we have lost, or have yet to find: “One can’t have the same sort of confidence in analysis of the statistics for gay archival collections, because only a fraction of relevant material is catalogued online.”
New old material pop up all the time: just this week the Bodleian Broadside Ballad project kicked up a 17th comical/bawdy ballad that nevertheless has at its punchline a same sex marriage: “The Deptford Wedding, Or the Mad Marriage between Peg and Mol
In 1970 the American Library Association founded the first professional gay organization: The Task Force on Gay Liberation (and only as recently as 1986 did they add Lesbian, 1995 Bisexual, and 1999 Transgendered). The Task Force was founded to address publishing and archiving inequities and provide an official means of recognizing fiction and nonfiction, and preserve it. Barbara Gittings, who was in charge of the Task Force from 1971, was as much interested in activism as she was in archives, and it is due to her that it gained visibility and credibility in advocating on behalf of LGBTQ History. As recently as the 1990s, radical librarians like Sandy Berman were still spilling ink over pointing out the structural flaws of the Dewey Decimal (And Library of Congress) Classification systems which categorized works treating of homosexuality as a sexual disorder “even though no reputable medical or psychiatric authorities any longer regard homosexuality as a disease or psychosis” (American Libraries 25 no. 4 p. 306). The 616 Dewey Decimal subclass making exactly that kind of judgment is not entirely out of use.
It’s worth noting that only when there is public interest in these subjects, would publishers take them seriously – advanced reading copies of works of fiction and non-fiction play a powerful role in determining the industry even today. For instance, the Hunger Games was vetted this way, by librarians with specialties in young adults literature, and book clubs, think of how important these chains of communication were pre-internet – I would love to read a study of that.
I wanted to mention this handful of historical examples because this is what makes me thankful when I hold a mass-produced copy of the Well of Loneliness or Tipping the Velvet in my hands. It isn’t just a payoff to the publisher, it’s a tribute to activists who fought to have Nature committed to Letter, and no matter how imperfect Virginia Woolf thinks the result is, it is priceless, it is power.
III. The Book Club as an Exercise in Community-Building
Reading can easily force participation in a wider history. I know that is something that, in leading discussions for my book club, I work to emphasise, to research, and to keep out into the open. I want to know the context of a book so I can know how I’m altering it or adding to it or throwing it under the bus completely as I read. To this extent the personal can easily become political.
Case in point: our book club was meeting to discuss Alison Bechdel’s The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For. If you’re not familiar, the series of comics spanning the 80s to 2008 is hamfisted in its liberal politics, and that’s part of its eloquence and its great value.
Nevertheless its politics is a part of its tension: the main character Mo (pictured left) is in a near constant state of despair over the way the world works, and her involvement in it one way or another. She beats herself up over her feelings of helplessness:
“JADED, I’ve become JADED. Where did all my revolutionary FERVOR go? I remember when Clarice and I came out together in college…we were so EXCITED, so RADICAL, so COMMITTED to dismantling the PATRIARCHY!”
In the book club we got stuck on that panel. What makes us radical nowadays? We came to the conclusion that in our own quiet way we were in fact radical in our reading, in our discussion, in not needing a classroom or any other excuse to read intensely and discuss sometimes very heatedly how stories work, why they matter, what they do wrong. We give equally rigorous treatment to well-known canonical texts like Orlando and we strain like hell over The Diaries of Anne Lister – but we make them account for themselves and in turn for the continuing history of which they are apart.
And in operating on a very local level, even a book club can creep into all other areas of life. We support one another: we attend events, gigs, movie nights, we go dancing, we organise groups to walk together at Gay Pride, the Dyke March, the Slut Walk, we support local bookstores with our reading lists, and, ultimately, our dissections of books become the building blocks of a community whose least common denominator happens to be one hell of an unforgiving analytical eye.
Nowadays there’s a lot of attention paid to how damn global and huge everything is, and the great potential of the internet to put everything and everyone close to hand whenever we want. But potential doesn’t auto-translate to any meaningful, concrete reality. In fact, to give the vast resource of the internet any vitality or concrete grounding, I would argue that you have to bring it back down to the personal, the local, the discussion. In a really small & quaint corner of life & learning, I think book clubs can do that. So start book clubs, and join them, and float around to different ones and cross-polinate, because it’s fun and because it matters.
IV. THE ZINE!
I made a zine to hand out with my presentation, click here to download it.
To join The Most Cake book club (based in London) email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Books We’ve Read So Far:
- Foxfire, Joyce Carol Oates (February 2013)
- Tom Boy (Film Club Substitute for December 2012)
- Trumpet, Jackie Kay (November 2012)
- The Daylight Gate, Jeanette Winterson (October 2012)
- Daughters of the North, Sarah Hall (September 2012)
- Chelsea Wives and their Mistresses, Sarah Bramley (August 2012)
- Are You My Mother? Alison Bechdel (June 2012)
- The Diaries of Anne Lister (May 2012)
- Rent Girl, Michelle Tea (April 2012)
- The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, Alison Bechdel (March2012)
- Orlando, Virginia Woolf (February 2012).
- The Rapture and The Bees, Carol Ann Duffy (January 2012)
- Tipping the Velvet, Sarah Waters (December 2011).
- Nightwood, Djuna Barnes (November 2011).
- Carol; Or the Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith (October 2011).
- Fun Home, Alison Bechdel (September 2011).
- The Well of Loneliness, Radclyffe Hall (August 2011).
- The Stone Gods, Jeanette Winterson (July 2011).
- Beebo Brinker, Ann Bannon (June 2011).