Editor’s Note: This list was first published in 2018. The Vancouver Women’s Library has since closed due to financial constraints and is greatly missed. The books, however, can be found online and in many libraries and bookstores across Canada and the US.
The Vancouver Women’s Library is coming up on its first anniversary. In one fearless year, they have gotten as much praise as criticism for hearkening back to the second wave, a time when not just the glittering metropolises, but even the Toledos of the world had a spot where women could meet, whether a bar, bookstore, or women’s center.
While the popular narrative says that equality is so mainstream that women’s space is no longer relevant, and detractors go so far as to call such spaces ‘too exclusive,’ the VWL tells a different story: that learning, writing, and reading freely is critical to women and girls “realizing their full power.”
The VWL is a volunteer-powered space that has over 400 members and 2000+ books, including multilingual adult and children’s books. They organize reading groups, film screenings, lectures, consciousness raising groups, kids’ story time, and host artists, writers, tarot readers, healers and stick and poke artists. Supporters and visitors come from all over the world. The anti-capitalist ethos of a library is nice, since it means they’ll probably never have to start selling dildos like Madwimmin Books in Dykes to Watch Out For. But it also means they have to fundraise to keep the doors open. You can check out their Patreon here.
When I caught up with Em Laurent, one of the founding members of the VWL, she was between helping a patron find books on Indigenous feminism and sitting in on the hormonal health workshop where women speak, learn, and sip herbal tea. While she and the rest of the volunteers stay busy, they took the time to write up their top list of books by lesbian/bi women — a combo of their faves and those books that don’t spend more than ten minutes on the shelf.
MUST READ BOOKS (click the title to shop for the book on Amazon):
1. Bluets by Maggie Nelson
“Nelson’s text has been called ‘philosophical poetry’ and ‘autotheory.’ It is about the color blue, and many other things. Too many things to recount now. It is harrowingly beautiful, to not read it, would be murderous to beauty.”
2. Blood, Bread and Poetry by Adrienne Rich
“A feminist classic, a beautifully woven collection of essays including the famous ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality’ as well as lesser known essays, such as an essay on the poet Elizabeth Bishop.”
3. Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit
“The term ‘mansplain’ has become a part of discourse. Rebecca Solnit may be responsible for this. A collection of essays that discusses Virginia Woolf, Susan Sontag and the #yesallwomen movement. Solnit’s weapons are her words.”
4. Chelsea Girls by Eileen Myles
“New york city in the 70s. Lesbians. Rock n roll. Drugs. Sex. More sex. Poverty. Poetry. Eileen Myles’ coming of age memoir about trying to remain authentic, fed, loved and creative within
the miasma of New York city in the 1970s and 1980s.”
5. Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy
“New Yorker staff writer Ariel Levy explores third wave feminism and queer culture, specifically the phenomenon of queer/trans culture of today’s youth. Discussions of pornography, individualism, boi culture and female masculinities mediated through a critical lens.”
6. Gender Trouble by Judith Butler
“Butler’s magnum opus of postmodern queer theory, that discusses the performativity of gender (it’s not as simple as it sounds! Trust us!). The text is written quite academically and is not necessarily accessible. Definitely worth grappling with.”
7. Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg
“The classic lesbian/butch/trans novel of the 21st century. Feinberg’s heartbreaking, working class novel that centers upon Jess, a butch lesbian who transitions and begins living as a man.
This book is an essential artifact within lesbian and broader LGBT history.”
8. This Bridge Called My Back edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa
“A feminist anthology that centers the experiences and theory of women of color. The term intersectionality drew inspiration from theory nested within Bridge. One of the most cited books
within feminist theory to this day.”
9. The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall
“‘One of the saddest lesbian texts ever written’ -one of our older patrons. Written in 1928, The Well centers upon the life of Stephen, a masculine lesbian woman. The book was subject to much censure, criticism and critique due to its lesbian nature, though the
novel does not read as sexually explicit.”
10. Gender Outlaw by Kate Bornstein
“A memoir ripe with cultural analysis and social commentary, Bornstein’s perspective, now living
as a transwoman, previously lived as a heterosexual businessman, describes transition within
a self-reflexive lens.”
11. The Feminist Bookstore Movement by Kristen Hogan
A site of inspiration for us and other feminist booksellers. A history of bookwomen, women who
believe in the power of community and readership as feminist praxis. A history of lesbian,
anti-racist feminist organizing across bookstore lines.
12. Reborn by Susan Sontag
“The journals of the young Sontag describe a precocious, sensual, bookish young woman who lusts for freedom, love and intellectual belonging. Sontag’s early life was formed through her
education, her love affairs with women and her subsequent marriage to Philip Rieff (a much older man). Beautifully written and littered with musings of the young intellectual who would
become one of the most prominent American writers of the 20th century.”