March 2 is World Book Day in the United Kingdom, today celebrating its 20th year. Somewhat confusingly, World Book Day is celebrated in a bunch of other places, too, including the United States on April 23.
It’s traditionally a day where parents send their kids to school dressed as a favourite hero or heroine from their most-loved book.
But that’s no reason for anyone to feel left out — there are a ton of gay books out there to inspire, provoke and enrich our lives. In fact, here are six books by UK authors that make essential reading for any gay man.
1. Straight Jacket
The most recent book on our list, Straight Jacket, was published last year (2016). Written by Matthew Todd, editor of the UK’s Attitude magazine, it’s a powerful self-help book for the 21st century gay men.
It looks beneath the shiny surface of contemporary gay culture and looks at why gay men are often so unhappy. With gay life so often surrounded by casual sex, drugs and alcohol, life can feel empty. Matthew Todd gives some excellent suggestions for how to make things better.
2. The Naked Civil Servant
Quentin Crisp’s autobiography The Naked Civil Servant gets to the core of what it’s like to be a not-especially-attractive gay man living through difficult times. It covers how he came out in 1931, and although mocked and beaten, unashamedly forged his own flamboyant and fabulous identity.
This book is both hilarious and heartbreaking, an inspiration to anyone who’s ever struggled to find the courage to be who they really want to be.
3. The Swimming-Pool Library
Alan Hollinghurst is an openly gay author living in London. He’s written a bunch of gay novels, and two of them are on this list: his 1988 work, The Swimming-Pool Library, looks at gay life in the UK before and after the repeal of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act which decriminalized homosexuality.
It’s full of sex, rites of passage, secret rituals and even more sex. It’s probably the first novel about modern gay life in the UK placed in context, from posh clubs to public toilets. It feels very real, much like the next book on our list.
4. The Line of Beauty
Written by Hollinghurst in 2004, The Line of Beauty is set in the ’80s. The AIDS epidemic hangs in the air, weaving through the narrative like a mist. This is a darker book, but with no less beautiful or vivid imagery. The gay hero, Nick Guest, is likable and full of the present-day conflicts we go through today as gay men.
The UK’s Tory Party and their politics features throughout the narrative, also, especially their closeted stories and private hedonism. With the Tory Party back in power in the UK and the current fuck-up that is Brexit, it feels like aspects of this story are once again coming to life.
5. Mrs Dalloway
This totally gorgeous novel by Virginia Woolf, set in and around Edwardian London, should be a relatively short read. But with such breathtaking imagery and sometimes difficult continuous prose, you may have to take regular breaks to take it all in. It’s full of repressed desire and forbidden love, as anyone who’s seen the The Hours — a film that looks at both Virginia Wolf and Mrs Dalloway herself — will know all too well. Expect goosebumps and heart-pangs.
6. Christopher and His Kind
Anything by Christopher Isherwood is worth reading. His short novel Goodbye to Berlin is the story that inspired Cabaret, after all. His remarkable autobiography Christopher and His Kind goes though his fascinating life, including living in the flamboyantly liberal pre-Nazi Berlin.
He talks about how being gay was a central part of his creative development as a human being — a brave and inspiring thing to do today — let alone in 1976.