Despite booming sales of the iPad, Kindle and other digital book readers, some see a disturbing trend among gay men: We are reading fewer books today than previous generations.
Robert Starner, co-founder in 2004 of the D.C.-area Big Gay Book Group, when he was working at the Lambda Rising bookstore on Connecticut Avenue, agrees that “now it seems that the gay men’s community is not reading as much as they were in the mid-1980s and 1990s,” and he confesses he doesn’t know why.
Starner’s lament is possibly an age-old complaint, echoing that of the great modernist poet Ezra Pound who decades ago rebuked his own generation when he declared that “the classics are not read in our time” and that this fact “sorely troubles my mind.”
But in our day consider these doleful facts: bookstores like Lambda Rising in D.C. and Rehoboth Beach and the Oscar Wilde Bookstore in New York City have closed their doors.
Nevertheless, gay men and books continue to intersect at meetings such as those held monthly by Starner’s group, the Big Gay Book Group, whose next event is Wednesday, Sept. 8 at 7 p.m. at his firm’s downtown D.C. office location, 1155 F St., N.W., Suite 200.
The book under the lens that night will be “Role Models” by Baltimore’s own gay filmmaker and provocateur John Waters. That book is a collection of essays on such iconic figures as playwright Tennessee Williams and singer Johnny Mathis but also Esther Martin, owner of one of the scariest bars in Charm City. Each of the subjects is an extreme figure who helped Waters “form his own brand of neurotic happiness,” according to Sarner.
Waters, discoverer of the drag personality known as Divine and auteur of the film “Hairspray,” the basis for the hit Broadway musical of the same title, is, according to Starner, “one of the most unique, perverse and hilarious artistic minds of our time.”
The range of books read in the group is wide, says Starner, and especially heavy on fiction in the first several years but most recently also broadened to include non-fiction titles. Classics of gay literature – like Andrew Holleran’s “Dancer from the Dance” and John Rechy’s “City of Night” as well as older works including E.M. Forster’s “Maurice” and James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room” – have been highlights, and he discovered that “some of the younger men had not read them, and more surprisingly some of those who are older men had not either.”
Another group, Bookmen DC, meets twice each month, on the first and third Wednesdays for about an hour, according to co-founder Tom Wischer. Both groups welcome drop-ins – basically “just show up as your interests and schedule allow,” says Wischer, who began the group in 1999 with staff members at the Whitman-Walker Clinic. At first the group was called Potomac Gay Men’s Book Group, then it was known as Boys and Books for most of its history. It was agreed that its first title was simply too stuffy-sounding.
The group’s current coordinator, Steve Honley, who also edits the Foreign Service Journal, stresses that the group is “all volunteer.”
“There are no articles of incorporation and no money involved – it’s a social group, and we are very inclusive – we welcome everybody. This is not a college seminar – come as you are.”
Noting that the group is now in its 12th year of existence, Honley proudly told the Blade recently that, “there are not that many groups this old in the gay community.” The book count is now at about 170 books and counting, “with very few duds” he said, adding “come check us out.”
The group’s next meeting will feature a book co-edited by a group member, Philip Clark (with David Gross), “Persistent Voices: Poetry by Writers Lost to AIDS.”
Bookmen DC meets at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 15 at the Sumner School, 1201 17th St., N.W.