By Ellyn Ruthstrom
I swore off regular book clubs years ago when I ended up reading books that I didn’t like and never would have read if given the choice. I LOVE to read, and like many people who love to read, I want to discuss what I read; but at this stage in my life, I don’t want to waste time reading books that don’t interest me. There are so many more books on my shelves, in the library, and in the bookstores that I really want to read!
So, when Branden Kornell decided to start up a Bi Book Group for the Boston area in July 2012 under the umbrella of the Bisexual Resource Center Meetup group, I was a little hesitant to take on the commitment. But after talking to Branden about my desire to only read books that I wanted to read, he emphasized that people would have the choice to opt in or out of particular books. With that stipulation, I was in!
Branden initially invited the book group to a restaurant so that folks could have dinner and talk books in a relaxed setting after work. When it turned out that having an involved conversation about a book was next to impossible for a group of 8-10 people to have in a noisy restaurant, Branden and his partner Simona decided to invite the group to meet in their own living room. It was a generous offer and one that created a warm and inviting atmosphere for folks to gather in a circle, share some snacks, and get into deep and intellectually vibrant discussions. And, of course, when the pandemic forced everyone into the safety of our homes, the book group continued with an online meeting, and it still persists that way now.
Over the last ten years, the group has evolved into a pattern of meeting every other month and has read 51 books. I’ve probably read about two-thirds of the titles that were chosen, staying away from most of the sci-fi and fantasy, which have never been my thing. We’ve read classics like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, James Baldwin’s Another Country, and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. We’ve read memoirs by Charles M. Blow, Daisy Hernández, and Alan Cumming. And we’ve read an amazing array of fiction and non-fiction.
What makes a book a bi book? It could be written by an out bi author. It could contain characters who identify as bi or it could involve bi history or theory. Or the book could break through the binaries of sexuality and gender in such a way that it ignites the bi imagination. At some point in every one of our book discussions we stop and ask the question, “Is this a bi book?” And probably 98% of the books have passed the test.
Our group may consider a book a bi book, but when you look out into the larger world of book reviews, far too often it is only discussed as a gay or lesbian book, maybe a queer book. And in those instances, any reference to relationships with other-sex partners is usually trivialized. It is refreshing to be in a circle of folks who want to discuss the full experiences of the characters and who understand the complexities of bi lives.
When I asked Branden why he thinks it’s important to have a space that focuses on bi books, he responded, “I’ve always enjoyed reading books with queer characters. There’s incredible variety among bisexual people and the experiences—real and fictional—that they have. Some narratives are immediately accessible to me, and others are completely outside of my experience. I really enjoy having a space where fellow queer folks can talk through their connections to and criticisms of the stories; it helps me think through the texts in additional ways.”
Branden, Simona, myself and a couple others have been part of the group since the beginning, and it’s been great to have new people join over time. There is still no requirement to read every book, but I always look forward to the camaraderie and sense of community I feel when I gather with the gang.
These are my favorite books from each year of the Book Group:
July 2012: In One Person, John Irving
December 2013: Aquamarine, Carol Anshaw
July 2014: The Two Hotel Francforts, David Leavitt
February 2015: Not My Father’s Son, Alan Cumming
May 2016: Fun Home, Alison Bechdel
August 2017: Fire Shut Up in My Bones, Charles M. Blow
August 2018: White Houses, Amy Bloom
November 2019: Miss Timmins’ School for Girls, Nayana Currimbhoy
September 2020: Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado
January 2021: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong
Ellyn is the Executive Director of SpeakOut Boston, and sometimes guest editor of BWQ.