Book Review: The Lost Library

Books are years in the making, and it was a few years ago that Tom Cardamone, asked whether I’d be interested in contributing an essay to a collection about favourite gay books that were out-of-print. Tom and I had connected with each other through a tenuous link or two. He had written a positive review of my collection of sex fiction, but he’d also done a review of a book that I was also about to review for an internet magazine. I asked him whether he’d have a look at it.

This explanation may seem unnecessary, but it is as an example of how people connect with each other, across space and time, and form bonds and sometimes community. To be honest, while I immediately thought of a book I could write about, I wasn’t so sure about the concept of the anthology. Was it sellable? Would it be interesting? It seemed somehow obscure to me, gay writers writing about books no longer available. The point being? Was it to capture something lost? Try to get the books republished? Or simply a historical document?

To counter the possibility of the book being too academic, too esoteric, I wrote my essay with a particular intent – I would talk about why the book appealed to me in an accessible way, how it related to my journey as a gay man and a writer, and knowing that others may not possibly ever read it, demonstrate a bit of the book’s beauty (My choice was Patrick Roscoe’s “Birthmarks”. Ironically, when I sent him a fan e-mail telling him I’d be highlighting his book, he responded with anger about how the publisher had ruined it from his original intent.)

pic3.jpgI was amused on reading the finally-published book, in a beautiful edition by Haiduk Press – gorgeous cover and a delicious feel to the pages – that this was the approach taken by most contributors, and that the collection is not obscure, but an interesting and unique approach to gay history and gay men’s lives featuring engaging and lively prose about something we love and why we loved it. As much as literary merit, the books featured in this anthology, pointed ways for gay men to survive, live and love, gave hope and possibility, and told us that we were not alone.

It was a fascinating social history to discover so many works with gay content written at times with so much gay oppression, whether a 1924 novel by Glenway Westcott, or young adult novels from 1969 and 1972. The breadth of the collection (there are 28 essays in all) spans a long period of gay history. Many of the early books reviewed featured rich, older gay men with much younger lovers, living in high society in New York or in European cities, some involved with hustlers; this was followed by an exploration of the many novels to come out of the early years of the AIDS epidemic. Another major strand is about gay men looking for and finding themselves (or who they hoped to be) whether in more recent novels featuring black gay characters, awkward gay teenagers, or men facing oppression, or in love, or at play.

I found it interesting how often contributors knew the authors of the books they wrote about, as friends and colleagues, or perhaps because they’d tracked them down as fans: a comment both on how small the gay literary world is but also how emotional ties affect how we view art. Rather than making the book feel like a club of insiders though, I think this aspect of the book spoke well to how we make connections and community and friendships.

I was also struck by a common tone of nostalgia and regret. It makes sense. After all, this book is called the “lost library”, it is about books that are no longer available, that the contributors long to see in print again, or perhaps that their authors were still alive. At the same time, it is a meeting of writers, who are often in the trade of capturing memories and romanticizing the past, and gay sensibility, which often is about wanting to be someone else or wanting to be a better self, or feeling “special” or “different” and turning that uniqueness to advantage. Bill Brent quotes an unpublished passage by Paul Reed about a man who spends so much time longing for his past that he turned regret into an artform.

Even if this melancholy doesn’t appeal to you, I think any gay man interested in gay identity and history will find “The Lost Library” engaging, be swept into conversations about why and how we love men, the moments we knew we were gay, the realizations that life would be just fine, and the signposts, in the form of books, that showed us the way. Not only about books, this anthology has fine writing in it, which makes a good tribute to the gay writers featured.

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