An Essential LGBTQ Reading List

It’s that time of year again: NYC Pride Week, the biggest (and we like to think the best) Pride celebration in the world. So what better time to brush up on your LGBTQ-themed reading? After all of the festivities, you’re going to want to put your feet up anyway. Here, we’ve collected twenty-five books that are essential reading for anyone, anytime — but especially this week. Of course, there are hundreds of books out there that could have been perfectly at home on this list — so consider it merely a starting place, and adventure on.
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Photo: Courtesy of Dover Publications.
Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman (1855)

To be fair, you might find this book on any list of essentials. But Whitman's crazy-mystic love poetry, his American-body songs, his vision, deserve all the accolades they get and more.
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Photo: Courtesy of Mariner Books.
Orlando, Virginia Woolf (1928)

In Woolf's most extravagant, exploratory novel — often read as a thinly veiled love letter to her companion Vita Sackville-West — Orlando, a young nobleman, wakes up one day as a woman, and then, not much bothered, really, proceeds to live through some four centuries.
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Photo: Courtesy of New Directions.
Nightwood, Djuna Barnes (1936)

A notoriously difficult read, and a notoriously good one, too — stylistically inventive and wildly written, a novel whose characters will attach themselves to you forever. As T.S. Eliot puts it in the novel's introduction, "Nightwood has neither stereotypes nor caricatures; there is a truth to these damaged hearts that moves us beyond the negative. Humans suffer, and, gay or straight, they break themselves into pieces, blur themselves with drink and drugs, choose the wrong lover, crucify themselves on their own longings, and let's not forget, are crucified by a world that fears the stranger — whether in life or in love."
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Photo: Courtesy of Ecco.
Two Serious Ladies, Jane Bowles (1943)

There's no real way to describe this modernist masterpiece and have it sound right — it's about two women who each set out to capture happiness via some experiences very new to them, and end up living strangely, freely, ravenously. Even still, that doesn't quite cover it, of course.
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Photo: Courtesy of Vintage.
Giovanni's Room, James Baldwin (1956)

In this classic novel, a young American expat in Paris must come to terms with his complicated relationships with members of the same (and of the opposite) sex, in particular the eponymous Giovanni. Plus: oysters, murder, betrayal, the guillotine, and beautiful, beautiful writing.
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Photo: Courtesy of Univ Of Minnesota Press.
A Single Man, Christopher Isherwood (1964)

The life of a single man in a single day. The place: SoCal in the '60s. The man, a middle-aged professor trying desperately to cope with the tragic death of his lover. The book: Lyrical and luminous and moving.
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Photo: Courtesy of Harper Perennial.
Dancer From the Dance, Andrew Holleran (1978)

This novel evokes the decadence and disco magic of Manhattan and Fire Island in the '70s like none other. Leading us through all the madness is Malone, a straight-laced Midwestern boy with a new taste for freedom, and the outrageous social butterfly Sutherland. A canonical post-Stonewall read that will brighten up the backs of your eyes.
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Photo: Courtesy of St. Martin's Griffin.
Nocturnes for the King of Naples, Edmund White (1978)

This book takes the form of a series of exquisite missives to a dead (and famous, and older) lover. The result is a haunting, unforgettable read, quite unlike anything else you've ever come across.
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Photo: Courtesy of Mariner Books.
The Color Purple, Alice Walker (1982)

A classic by any metric, which won the Pulitzer Prize as well as the National Book Award in the year following its release, Walker's novel follows a young African-American woman facing a life of constant oppression in rural Georgia in the 1930s. But Celie's life is changed forever by Shug, the blues singer with whom she falls in love.
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Photo: Courtesy of Crossing Press.
Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde (1984)

A collection of the essential essays and speeches by feminist icon and poet Audre Lorde. These essays range from personal to undeniably public, from radical calls to action to poetic investigations of the way life is lived — each is challenging, thought-provoking, fiery, and just as important now as the moment they were written.
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Photo: Courtesy of Grove Press.
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson (1985)

A semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel infused with Winterson's trademark quirk and feel for luscious metaphor, in which a young British girl, raised evangelical, realizes she is attracted to women. This seems fine to her, but the community to which she belongs (no shocker) is mightily disturbed.
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Photo: Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, Alison Bechdel (1986)

Any and all of Bechdel's books could easily make this list — though you should absolutely read both of her excellent graphic memoirs — but the connoisseur might start with her lauded comic, which chronicles the lives of a group of lesbian friends over more than 20 years. Fun fact: This strip is also the birthplace of the "Bechdel Test," something every contemporary feminist should know about.
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Photo: Courtesy of Vintage.
The Swimming Pool Library, Alan Hollinghurst (1988)

In this startlingly good first novel, a young man (rich, beautiful, idle) cruising in a London public restroom in the summer of 1983 ends up saving the life of an octogenarian — and later, ends up writing his biography, largely from his diaries, which we the readers are, luckily, allowed to see.
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Photo: Courtesy of Theatre Communications Group.
Angels in America, Tony Kushner (1991)

This is one of the most important works in the queer canon, which also happens to be one of the best and most lauded plays ever written. The winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1991, the play is political and emotional in equal measure, about the AIDS crisis, about Reagan, about love and life and death. Really, it's everything.
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Photo: Courtesy of Alyson Books.
Stone Butch Blues, Leslie Feinberg (1993)

An early and important novel about the transgender experience, about a young girl growing up very different from everyone she knows in her small blue-collar town in the 1950s. At sixteen, she runs away, trying to find herself in a dismissive and disgusted world. It takes her some time.
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Photo: Courtesy of Vintage.
Autobiography of Red, Anne Carson (1998)

Carson's novel in verse re-imagines a minor part of the myth of Herakles, this time casting Geryon, a monster he is tasked to kill, as a red-faced teenager who adores him. Herakles is as fickle as he is beautiful, and the book becomes both a mythic, tragic love story and a novel about growing up and growing wise, with all the pains inherent in both of those transformations.
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Photo: Courtesy of Riverhead Trade.
Tipping the Velvet, Sarah Waters (1998)

This book has everything: It's a literary historical romance set in Victorian England, featuring cross-dressing, music halls, hero worship, sex of all sorts, heartbreak, and many thrills. Also, you know what that title really means, right?
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Photo: Courtesy of Mariner Books.
We the Animals, Justin Torres (2001)

"We wanted more," this incendiary little book begins. "We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots... We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kinds locked in a feud for more." But as the novel goes on, the "we" whittles into an "I," one brother who is, in at least one essential way and probably more, different than the others. His story is beautiful, vibrant, and necessary.
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Photo: Courtesy of Scribner.
At Swim, Two Boys, Jamie O'Neill (2001)

A tragic but deeply beautiful love story between two young men — one polished, one the opposite — in 1916 Ireland, just before and during the Easter uprising.
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Photo: Courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf.
Boy Meets Boy, David Levithan (2003)

LGBTQ themes in YA novels are (mercifully) becoming more and more common — though there's still some room to grow. If you're a fan of the genre, try this feel-good option: A love story set in a high school where the head quarterback / homecoming queen has changed her name from Daryl to Infinite Darlene and everybody is accepting of everybody. Sigh.
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Photo: Courtesy of Routledge.
Undoing Gender, Judith Butler (2004)

Gender theorist, philosopher, professor and ethicist Judith Butler should be read by everyone — though some are turned away by her high academics. Undoing Gender is her most widely accessible work, collecting much of her writings on gender and sexuality, asking the question "of what it might mean to undo restrictively normative conceptions of sexual and gendered life." She asks: "If I desire in certain ways, will I be able to live? Will there be a place for my life, and will it be recognizable to the others upon whom I depend for social existence?"
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Photo: Courtesy of Anchor.
Inferno (A Poet's Novel), Eileen Myles (2010)

"My English professor’s ass was so beautiful," this novel begins. Already good, right? What follows is a novel full of such wanting, in which a girl (also named Eileen Myles, as it happens) navigates her development as a poet and as a lesbian in New York.
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Photo: Courtesy of Beacon Press.
A Queer History of the United States, Michael Bronski (2011)

What's an essential reading list without a little straight up history? In this volume, Bronski takes us through the vibrant history of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans, from 1492 to the '90s. Most importantly, he treats this history as integral to the larger picture, not separate from it.
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Photo: Courtesy of Coffee House Press.
Prelude to Bruise, Saeed Jones (2014)

Jones begins his book with a quote from Kafka: "The man in ecstasy and the man drowning — both throw up their arms." And the speaker here, Boy — growing up black and gay in the South — is throwing up his arms, is being two things at once, is wanting, is calling out, and will (to refer to yet another Kafka-ism): take an axe to the sea of ice within you. An essential collection of poetry for our times.
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Photo: Courtesy of Graywolf Press.
The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson (2015)

In this slim book — part memoir, part essay — the brilliant Nelson examines her relationship with the artist Harry Dodge, whose gender is something outside the binary, as well as parenting, partnership, love, desire, and family, queer and otherwise. Like everything Nelson writes, you'll feel smarter when you're done reading it.
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