Review of A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity Around the World by R.B. Parkinson
A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity Around the World
by R.B. Parkinson
I hate listicles. I’ve gotten to the point where I just don’t click on any post that starts with a number in its title. I know, I know, #notalllisticles, some are well-written and informative.
A Little Gay History is, when you think about it, a listicle; you could retitle it “82 Objects from the British Museum Related to Gay Sexual Desire”. Listicles were around before the Internet, and I suppose they will outlive the Internet too. I have a few other books that are like this—The Math Book and The Physics Book come to mind. They are much heftier, much longer versions of a similar idea to this book. I always find these types of books difficult to read, let alone review. They aren’t really books in the narrative sense, not even in the non-fiction sense. They are closer to encylopedias—they are, essentially, lists. How do you review it. “Good list”?
As R.B. Parkinson explains in the preface, this book exists in other forms, including a web trail you can view online. The intention behind this book, then, is to bring to the forefront historical objects and art that depict same sex desire. Parkinson makes a lot of good points about how prejudices in history and historians influence the way we think about homosexuality and same sex relations in the past. This is a really difficult topic to discuss, because even the language is weird and filled with bias! A Little Gay History tries to demonstrate that humans have had same sex relations throughout human history, but that the attitudes towards these relations—and the extent to which they were considered “normal” or allowable or on the same level as other types of relations—varied a great deal by geography and period.
Like many books of its ilk, A Little Gay History is beautifully designed. I never went to the British Museum while I was in England (I did visit the Natural History Museum, which was awesome), and I don’t know if I’ll ever get the chance to go. So it was nice to see the photographs of these objects reproduced in such high quality detail and colour. Parkinson’s write-ups are informative and interesting. They spark a desire to learn more. I really want to read more Virginia Woolf now….
I don’t think I would have picked this up if it weren’t a #BangingBookClub book. If I wanted to learn more about historical attitudes towards homosexuality, I’d probably search out a meatier book with more writing and less photography—but that’s just how I roll, and you might differ. In this case, I got more out of the brilliant podcast discussion than I did from the book itself. Hannah, Leena, and Lucy do an excellent job talking about the issues this book raises—Hannah in particular is in her wheelhouse here, and the two others ask great questions that made me flip back through this book to give some of the pages a second look.
In the podcast, Leena observes that the book makes some pointed comments about Britain’s role in making homosexuality illegal throughout the world. Hannah says that sometimes she thinks of the British Museum as “here are all the things that we [the British] stole” and that gave me a laugh—but it’s also a thought I had while reading this book. There is something ironic about a book focuses on objects from the British Museum to discuss history and sexuality around the world, since Britain and its imperialism has been such a problematic actor in those forums.
I was surprised and amused to discover my library had a copy of this (sometimes my library seems to have copies of the most esoteric things). A Little Gay History is what it says: little, gay, and a history. It’s fine. It didn’t blow me away, but it was a nice enough way to spend the afternoon and made me think about things in a way I hadn’t thought of before.