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Updated: Mar 18

"If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again,
there is no use in reading it at all." Oscar Wilde

My love of reading began with the wildly popular “Hardy Boy” books, a series of mysteries that featured a pair of young brothers solving crimes in a suburban town in the first half of the 20th century. Each Saturday, my dad would drive my older brother and me to a local shop where the Franklin W. Dixon books were sold and then we would argue over who got first dibs. He would torment me by taking days to finish each book while I patiently waited my turn. When I finally tired of this arrangement, I turned to my parent’s sparse collection of hardcover novels. There, pride of place was given to the READERS DIGEST series of condensed books. Can you imagine? Who dreamed up such an idea? Best sellers were cut and compiled into a single volume that was bound in faux leather with the titles embossed in gold on the spine. They arrived every Spring and Autumn, 4 – 5 books in each edition. These heavily-edited novels were written by such celebrated authors as Pearl Buck, Daphne du Maurier, Edna Ferber, John O’Hara and Truman Capote. The books were enormously popular, and the writers and their agents hoped these abridged versions would spur sales of the full-length editions. The series lasted until well into the 1990’s, the final selections were by authors such as John Grisham, Michael Crichton and Ken Follett.

Even at the age of eight I knew I was being cheated—I wanted to read REAL books, with all the words the authors intended—so I decided to join our town’s handsome new library. I hopped on my 2-wheeler and rode five miles into town. There, the librarian had me fill out a lengthy form and then, sadly, told me I would need my mother to co-sign the application. So back I went, five more miles home to seek my mother’s permission. She made me a peanut butter sandwich for the return trip and I peddled furiously to get there before the 5:00 closing time. The librarian, impressed by my persistence, rewarded me not only with my very first library card, but she also allowed me to take out five books, not just the single volume I had chosen.

I loved biographies and she pointed the way. She explained this section of the library was the most popular for my age-group and the library had recently sent out the entire collection to be re-bound in bright orange covers. I read my way through all the US presidents, and then their wives [Dolly Madison was the subject of several excellent biographies!], until finally, having to choose between Big Jim Bridger, Mountain Man or Philo Farnsworth: The Boy who Invented TV, I decided to branch out and explore a different section of the library—fiction, from A to Z—and I have never left.

About this time my ninth grade English teacher gave us the assignment to read the “Arts and Leisure” section in THE SUNDAY NEW YORK TIMES each week, thus introducing me to the world of newspapers. Curiously enough, another section in the Sunday paper also caught my eye—published twice each year as a magazine insert and titled “Men’s Fashions of the Times,” this splashy supplement was an eye-opener! At that time and at that age, I had no idea what so fascinated me, but the men in suits and shirts and sweaters and bathing trunks pleased me in some mysterious way. At this time, I was also reading Allen Drury’s thriller, Advise and Consent. At first, I was fascinated by the glamorous world of American politics but as I got deeper into the book, I began to have a sickly feeling—a handsome US senator was threatened with blackmail for a homosexual relationship he had enjoyed years earlier. When he sees no way out, he commits suicide. Something within me signaled danger, but I was unable to articulate my fears. I knew I no longer felt as safe as I had prior to reading this novel, but I also knew I wanted to read more about such characters.

At that time in the United States, there were no positive role models for young men and boys who were questioning their sexuality—not in films, not in literature, not on television. Later in life I discovered there were novels about the gay experience, both enlightening and depressing, if you knew where to look, but I didn’t. Who to ask? When I turned nineteen, a friend gave me Song of the Loon, a pulp novel that told the lusty tale of a 19th century frontiersman, Ephraim MacIver, who enjoyed many homosexual encounters in the American wilderness. It was naughty and distinct from most gay novels of that era which treated homosexuality as a ‘problem’ that had to be cured or denied or overcome. No, Ephraim is a celebrant and never thought being gay was a problem. The novel that introduced him was a huge success, and generated two sequels and a [very bad!] film.

In my 20’s and 30’s, serious writing about the gay experience was still rare and most of the gay characters were sad, depressed or suicidal. In 1971, Maurice, written by E.M. Forster, was published posthumously; written in 1914, the author refused to allow it to be published while he was still living, yet it told a tale very different story from most gay novels. Maurice Hall and Alec Scudder, from opposite ends of the prevailing social order, fall in love, and are happy! It was thrilling to read.

Another novel published posthumously, The Garden of Eden, by the most macho of 20th century novelists, Ernest Hemingway, dealt with a young couple living in the south of France, experimenting with gender reversal and sexual stereotypes. Such bold material clearly made their authors nervous, yet both novels contributed to the growing body of work exploring non-traditional lives.

The late eighties and nineties began an entirely new chapter in gay literature as the devastating scourge of AIDS fueled many angry and heartbreaking plays and memoirs and films. As the new millennium approached, these fresh gay voices would express themselves loudly, joyously, humorously, and affectingly.

For an avid reader, the choice of what to read is often serendipitous. Sometimes your next book is an odd present from a favorite aunt, or a bright cover that caught your eye at a weekend flea market, or maybe a dime store romance found in the guest room of an old friend’s country retreat. You never know what surprises lie in store until you turn that first page and then you must let loose and agree to travel wherever the author leads. The Kindle logo captures this mood perfectly with its young boy sitting beneath a large tree, totally immersed in a novel.

What bliss!


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