The Burning Library

Edmund White first attracted the attention of the highbrow reading public in the 1970’s with the publication of two “straight” novels, but he attracted a much wider audience and became associated with the gay liberation movement with the appearance of his distinguished semi-autobiographical novels: A BOY’S OWN STORY (1982), and its sequel, THE BEAUTIFUL ROOM IS EMPTY (1988). For readers unfamiliar with White’s nonfiction, THE BURNING LIBRARY establishes White as a master of the informal essay. Editor David Bergman (himself a distinguished gay literary critic) has arranged in chronological order essays written between the early 1970’s and the present.

Although the volume contains essays on a wide range of topics, White’s most compelling writing falls into two main categories, which often overlap: gay issues and literary criticism. The essays follow the sad arc of gay urban life from the optimistic days following the Stonewall Riot of 1969 (at which event White was present) to the more sober age of the 1990’s. If “The Joys of Gay life,” written in 1977, some four years before the discovery of the AIDS virus, strikes the reader as “Pollyanna-ish” (a charge to which White himself pleads guilty), then 1987’s “Esthetics and Loss,” in which White mourns the devastation to the art world brought about by AIDS, provides a grave and somber balance.

Readers unfamiliar with White’s frequent contributions to THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS will be pleasantly surprised by such elegant and insightful works of literary criticism as “Nabokov: Beyond Parody” and “The Emperor of Signs: Roland Barthes,” as well as by essays on such gay writers as William S. Burroughs and Michel Foucault. Many of White’s magisterial opinions on the craft of writing are brought together in “The Paris Review Interview.”