The Perks of Being a Reader

As cliché as it sounds, books saved my life.

In high school, while everyone was partying and doing things that I wish I would have done, I read. All of the time. I read because books knew me better than I knew myself. My entire youth was spent in self-denial and self-loathing. I carried the secret of my homosexuality throughout my junior high and high school years, but books showed me that I was not alone.

Around my 18th birthday, I picked up Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Chboksy tells the story of Charlie, a high school Freshman trying to come to terms with life, love, and his past (the film version staring Emma Watson is to be released in 2012). I read it in one day and I remember feeling exactly like Charlie: beautifully confused. But it was comforting, because suddenly I did not feel so helpless and lost. If anything, I felt like I had finally found a best friend. It was something that I had never experienced before.

James Baldwin, a writer known for his stories concerning the exploration of homosexual identity, proclaimed, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”[1] We read books because we can relate to them and because they make us feel human. While I did not come out until I was 21, books made me more comfortable in my skin. J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, and Augusten Burrough’s Running with Scissors were some other novels that I read during my high school years, and all of them touch on coming to terms with the self, and all of them explore the question of sexuality.

Literature examining sexual orientation is nothing new. Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (published in Germany in 1912) is about a man’s obsession about a boy; Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928) tells the story of a man who changes genders; and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) has several homoerotic undertones. These are just three examples of the hundreds of novels that are celebrated by the LGBT community.

Yet, with the growing popularity of electronic books, the publishing world is suffering. In his 2010 study, Peter Johnston stated that in 2009 book publishing net revenues lost $22.9 billion, down from 2008’s $24.3 billion. While there was an increase in revenue in 2010, book publishing continues to dwindle, mostly because of digital publishing.[2] As a result, several publishing companies and books stores (i.e. Borders) have closed. In April 2011, San Francisco’s A Different Light, one of the country’s most celebrated and cherished LGBT literary institutions, closed its doors after 32 years of business. A Different Light joins other LGBT stores like Washington D.C.’s Lambda Rising and New York’s Oscar Wilde Books. In a recent Publishers Weekly article, Marc Schultz discusses the impact of how the book industry is suffering because of the economy and because of the turn to electronic books. He writes, “Not only are consumers fleeting to the Internet for deep discounts; many publishers are increasingly unwilling to take a chance on LGBT material.”[3] In the same article, Rafael Kadushin, an editor for the University of Wisconsin Press, adds,

Books in general are being more and more tightly categorized, and it’s getting harder for gay identified writers, unless they have a proven track record, to get signed because publishers see the gay market as something that’s shrinking and marginalized. And because too many publishers are only pitching gay-identified books to a gay market, things look even worse. Because there is the growing perception that gay literature isn’t even particularly crucial or interesting, even to a gay market, now that other media represent gay images and gay culture, and gay readership is shrinking.[4]

Kadushin goes on to say that this perception—that the market for gay literature is diminishing—is flawed, because there is a very large, committed market, and that the public needs this genre of literature because of its “universal resonance.” He also says, “It’s insulting to assume, as too many people do, that gay writers only have something to say to a gay audience.” That’s why Kadushin, like other publishers, look for books that go “beyond simple identity politics or a single market.” Publishers want books that reach out to large, diverse audiences.

There are about 175,000 books published annually (not many of them are LGBT themed)[5] and with the diminishing market, it can be assumed that not many youth are reading LGBT books or books in general. More and more are spending their time on the Internet or watching TV, because it’s convenient and because several kids don’t want to read outside of school. But there are those—like my high school self—that do chose to read. Ellen Wittlinger, a straight author who writes LGBT young adult novels, stresses the importance of reading in her article “Too Gay or Not Gay Enough?” She writes,

[Gay], lesbian, and bisexual youth attempt suicide up to four times more often than their heterosexual peers. For transgendered youth, some studies put the rate of attempted suicide as high as fifty percent. Along with others who write books with LGBT characters, the most moving letters and e-mails I receive from kids who claim that reading one of my books saved their life. It seems obvious to me that the more queer books there are in the world, the more queer kids we reach with the message that they are not alone, the fewer LGBT kids become one of these grim statistics.[6]

Books, then, do save lives. For me—and I’m sure several feel the same—so many books have an amazing way of establishing an intimate relationship with its reader. It is a relationship that you cannot get from watching a TV show or a film. You spend more time with a book and you are able to understand and relate to the characters more, like Chbosky’s Charlie. People continue to read, but not enough are. And even though the market is not so great, there will always be books, and there will always be friends within words reassuring you that you are not alone.

Addison Bell is a senior at DePaul University where he is studying English Literature. He is the President of Oxfam DePaul and volunteers with Oxfam America, an organization dedicated to ending world hunger, poverty, and social injustice. Follow Jacob on Twitter @boy_1904 and on Tumblr:

[1] James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket

[2] Johnston, Peter. “Crafting New Reading Experiences and New Sales Opportunities with E-books.” Seybold Report: Analyzing Publishing Technologies 10.20 (2010): 9-12.

[3] Donahue, Dick. “On the Front Lines.” Publishers Weekly 258.16 (2011): 16-20.

[4] Donahue, “On the Front Lines.”

[5] Donahue, “On the Front Lines.”

[6] Wittlinger, “Too Gay or Not Gay Enough?” The Horn Book Magazine (2011): 146-151. Wittlinger cites the 2007 Massachusetts Youth Risk Survey.


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