My next read

Well, here I am, one book into my new idea of blogging about a book a month, and already I’m struggling to keep up with my reading.  But it occurred to me that it might be harder for me to dodge this self-imposed task if I told you in advance about the next book I’m planning to read and write about.  This way, if I do fail to write about it, I’ll be left with a ‘hanging post’, one that refers forward to another post that never appears, and I’m enough of an OCD-tinged freakshow tidy-minded person to not want that to happen.  (I know I could just delete this post instead, but then I’d have the permanent back-of-my-mind itch of knowing that there are other people who would realise what I was up to, and that would also bother me.  I know, I know: I’m weird.)

On that note, therefore, I’m glad to announce that the book I shall be desperately trying to avoid reading with pleasure this month is:

A Gay History of Britain: Love and Sex Between Men Since the Middle Ages, edited by Matt Cook.

The title is, I guess, reasonably self-explanatory.  The book has four authors altogether: the aforementioned Matt Cook, who contributes an introduction and two chapters, covering the periods 1914-67 and 1967-2006 respectively; Robert Mills, who writes about the period 1000-1500; Randolph Trumbach, who also provides two chapters, one focussed on the period 1500-1700, and another dealing with 1700-1800; and the last remaining gap (1800-1914) is filled by Cocks – HG Cocks, to be precise.

Why did I choose this book?  Well, for a start, I quite fancy varying between fiction and non-fiction in this little blog project.  One of the aims is to stretch myself a little, and I’ve read a lot of fiction over the years (and studied it to postgraduate level), so the opportunities for stretching here are going to be limited.  History, on the other hand, I only studied to A-level, and I’ve never read a history book for pleasure, so this is going to be a new experience.*  Then, too, although I think I’m reasonably well-informed about gay history from the Wolfenden report onwards (I guess I’ll find out…), and have a vague sense of the general trend of the story from the 17th Century onwards, for quite large amounts of the period covered by the book I’m pretty much clueless, and I would be pleased to change that.  Finally, once I get back beyond the period I have personal experience of my knowledge is, I think, fairly superficial.  I’m hoping the book might flesh out some of the social history for me (though, of course, the scope for this is limited, given that this is a relatively slim single-volume history covering a period of 1,000 years).

One thing I’m hoping (really, really hoping) is that this book doesn’t fall into the trap of assuming that, because there were no words for describing gay people before the second half of the 19th Century, there were no people with a stable attraction to their own sex.  This idea became absurdly fashionable in the cultural studies arena ten or fifteen years ago (mainly because the idea of an unregulated and inchoate sexuality chimed so neatly with postmodern ideas more generally) and it has filtered out very widely, at least in the vulgarised form “there weren’t any gay people before the 1870s”.  I’m hoping that this book will start with the historical evidence, rather than the quasi-philosophical conviction that sexual orientation is the product of people discussing sexual orientation, and that before there were words to discuss sexual orientation, there was no such thing as sexual orientation.  (So someone made random mouth noises, then invented the idea of a person who’s attracted to their own sex in order to give the random mouth noises meaning?  Does anyone seriously believe this is how the process of intellection works?)

Anyway, I lightly skimmed the introduction when I was picking up the book from the library, and that initial impression is reasonably encouraging.  It does seem as though the authors have decided, for the most part, not to describe people using words invented after they lived, but it would appear they have not pushed into the full absurdity of insisting that, because they predated the invention of the words, they didn’t live at all.  I’ll be honest, even this seems a little over-fastidious to me.  Heterosexual/ bisexual/ homosexual (and their synonyms) are, at least in part, labels that describe an individual on the basis of the behaviour they exhibit, and if there’s good evidence a person exhibited the behaviour, it seems unnecessarily cautious to avoid the label, even if it is a modern one.  After all, the word vegetarian is also fairly recent, but I don’t think many of us would object to the word being attached to a person whom the evidence suggests ate no meat, even if they did die before the word was invented.

Well, I probably ought to get on and start reading the book.  One last thing before I wrap this pre-reading post up, though.  I was interested by the cataloguing decision made by the university library I’ve borrowed the book from.

The cataloguing system the library uses is old, certainly older than the Dewey system.  I think it basically dates back to the establishment of the library several hundred years ago, although it’s been expanded since then to accommodate new areas of study, of course.  The particular section in which this book was filed has been relabelled Sociology at some point, but the actual books that appear alongside the LGBT studies section suggest an earlier labelling that was less…shall we say…politically correct.  The books that appear immediately before the gay section are on paedophilia, you see, and the books immediately after deal with prostitution.  I’d bet this section was initially labelled sexual perversions, or something similar. I also reckon it was organised alphabetically, which I think would mean the LGBT books would have originally appeared under the heading pederasty (paedophilia, pederasty, prostitution – it seems to make sense).

I can’t quite work out if I’m charmed by the realisation that, when I borrow a book like this, I’m part of a line of people who’ve been taking a scholarly interest in the subject since before academic commentary differentiated between adult same-sex attraction and adult-adolescent attraction, or if I’m horrified by the notion that the old, prejudicial ways of thinking still lie so close to the surface in a modern university library.  On balance, it’s more the former, I think, but it’s still an odd thing to come face to face with.  Although, I guess, quite an appropriate prelude to thinking about ‘love and sex between men since the Middle Ages’.

* – Unless, that is, I’m allowed to count An Utterly Impartial History of Britain, and I don’t really think I should be.

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4 Responses to My next read

  1. Neuroskeptic says:

    “After all, the word vegetarian is also fairly recent, but I don’t think many of us would object to the word being attached to a person whom the evidence suggests ate no meat, even if they did die before the word was invented.”

    That’s an interesting question actually. Certainly someone who ate no meat for some religious, philosophical or health reason, I would class as a vegetarian, and there have been vegetarians in that sense for a long time. Ancient Greece and ancient India had loads.

    On the other hand if someone just happened to eat no meat because they couldn’t afford it – not because they deliberately abstained from meat – I wouldn’t call them a vegetarian.

    Poor people throughout history have always had less access to meat. They usually had some on special occasions but the idea that every main meal ought to have meat in it is very modern.

  2. Oo, I’d like to read the whole of this book myself. I read a chapter or so of it for uni when studying the Wolfenden report as part of a module on vice in cities, but did not have the time nor inclination to read the whole thing back then. The fact it was part of a module on vice is again an extension on your ponderings about the categorisation of the book.

    Looking at the list of related items on Amazon, it looks like I’ve read bits of most of the books listed. Now I’m long free from my hated history degree, I would like to delve back in to the few elements of my course I found genuinely interesting. It would be nice to study these things for pleasure rather than because I had an essay deadline approaching.

  3. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    Neuroskeptic – Perhaps we could call the situation where people can’t afford meat situational vegetarianism, in the same way that people in single gender environments are sometimes said to engage in situational homosexuality… But, seriously, I take your point; there are problems with the analogy.

    intothesystem – It’s amazing the way a degree can kill interest in something you thought you enjoyed, isn’t it? I went five years after my degree without picking up a book, apart from ones that had the words Star Trek on the cover…

  4. Yeah – I loved history at A level, but hated almost every second of my degree. I did a couple of History of Medicine modules and a History of Computing module from the History of Science, Technology and Medicine department (which was in social sciences, not arts) and preferred them massively over the proper history courses.

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