Just Read: Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

As somebody who typically reads journal articles, newspaper articles, historical biographies, and political analysis, I miss reading fiction. This past weekend, having realized I had left my copy of A Promised Land by Barack Obama at work (with just 50 pages to go, mind you), I turned to my wife and asked for recommendations. Her degree is in English Literature, and she is forever trying to open my mind to the classics.

It isn’t, of course, that I don’t want to read the classics, or that I’m a stuck-in-my-ways old bore (although there is an argument that can be had for that, too). Growing up, I devoured fiction like it was about to be banned. I was given the duty of “testing books” for my local library, and that put me on to series like A Series of Unfortunate Events and more. I think that what has happened is that now I try and define myself by continually learning, by staying “engaged” with the world around me and trying to stay, well, smart. For a time, as a child, if asked what superpower I could have, I’d say I wished I could absorb books just by touching them. When watching The Matrix I found myself just as jealous of Neo’s new ability to just download information straight into his head as I was of his ability to stop bullets and fly.

I read Giovanni’s Room in a single day. This isn’t meant to impress. The book is short at 160 pages. I didn’t read it in a single day out of some single-minded desire to prove that I could or using some kind of superhuman reading ability. I read it in a single day because I was worried that if I didn’t I would never go back to it. This book is harrowing and beautiful. Writing this piece I’ve gone back and forth on trying to summarize the story of the book, but I know I’ll miss something important, or misrepresent something.

I do, however, know that there are poignant lessons contained within that are relevant today. The book gives a fascinating insight into the strains and fears of LGBTQIA+ people, not just in the 1950s I think, but today. Writing as an ally, I’m loathe to attempt to explain them here for fear of “othering” real people, but also out of a desire to avoid explaining an entire group of people merely by struggle.

What I can talk about I think is the theme of manhood and masculinity. Growing up I sang, I took part in musical theatre, and I didn’t play sports. I never really felt like a real “man.” I’m lucky in that my experiences, I think, have led me to be a more well-rounded person, sensitive to others life experiences and overall more comfortable in myself. Giovanni’s Room gave me a really interesting take on how this can go the other way, and turn into completely toxic masculinity when a person’s true self is completely at odds with the expectations of the society around them. How quickly that conflict can manifest as loathing of self and others.

Up next, I’ll be finishing A Promised Land by Barack Obama. Don’t forget to keep up with what I’m reading on Goodreads here.

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