James Baldwin photographed in 1965, about a decade after publishing Giovannis Room.
James Baldwin photographed in 1965, about a decade after publishing Giovanni's Room, one of the most daring artistic acts in American history. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

"Nothing is more dangerous than isolation, for men will commit any crimes whatever rather than endure it."

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James Baldwin wrote those words in 1954, while at the same time drafting Giovanni's Room, one of the most beautiful and frightening novels of the 20th century.

In it, Baldwin imagines his way into a white man's mind—a tall, blond, cowardly white man, isolated by his own obliviousness. Though the book is widely considered a landmark of queer literature, it is many other things too: a suspense novel, a murder mystery, a love triangle (the narrator is torn between the love of a man and the love of a woman), a tragedy, and an unflinching depiction of the dark sides of whiteness.

It's a slim, intense novel—only 169 pages—and while it is now considered one of the most daring and successful artistic gestures in American history, it was initially rejected by Baldwin's publisher, and more than one person told him it was not a good idea. They did not believe the world was ready for a book like this, and didn't believe Baldwin's reputation would survive. They were wrong. The book was a bestseller, and almost instantly regarded as a masterpiece.

As Hilton Als wrote in the New York Times last year:

Giovanni’s Room is Baldwin’s “white” novel in more ways than one. It’s the book that the self-described “abnormally ambitious, abnormally intelligent, and hungry black cat” had to write, less as a way of discussing his sexuality than as a way of discussing what America had done to his sexuality, along with his capacity for intimacy and, indeed, the whole notion of masculinity that his contemporaries and others wrestled with.

Over four weeks beginning on June 27 at 10 am, we will be reading Giovanni's Room and meeting weekly to discuss it, at a pace of about two chapters a week.

For each weekly meeting, I will prepare a brief talk about some aspect of Baldwin's life or a close analysis of something in the text, and everyone else in the club (including you!) will have an opportunities to share and discuss their reactions to the novel as well.

To get the most out of the Quarantine Book Club experience, I recommended you do it with a friend. Think of someone you love talking on the phone with, maybe someone you haven't heard from in a while, and invite them to do this with you. It's fun to have a person you can call after the weekly meetings to keep the conversation going. And because we do it at 10 am PST on Saturdays, which is 1 pm in New York City, and 7 pm in Berlin, people from all around the world join in.

This book club is also suited to people who are doing it solo, and it's a great way to meet new people—other people who enjoy deep engagement with novels. After you sign up, you should get yourself a copy of the book (either from a local bookstore, or from a local library) and try to bring it with you to the first meeting on June 27. The club is equally suited to people who've read the book before and want to come to a deeper appreciation of its genius, and people who are reading it for the first time.

Support The Stranger

The Giovanni's Room Quarantine Book Club meets for two hours on Saturday mornings at 10 am PST: June 27, July 4, July 11, July 18. You do not need to read any of the book by the time of our first meeting on June 27. Ticketholders will have access to recordings of any meetings that they are not able to make it to.

If you have any questions, ask away.

If you're like to join the club, sign up here.

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