Plays 1937–1955 by Tennessee Williams (Library of America, $40). Plays should be performed rather than read, but Williams's dialogue is so vivid it doesn't need actors to bring it to life. The Library of America volume includes his best work: A Streetcar Named Desire (the great American play), The Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and others. Williams wrote about all kinds of men and women, his gay point of view enabling him to see through the masks of masculinity and femininity to the souls inside.
United States: Essays 1952–1992 by Gore Vidal (out of print). This fat volume includes the full, amazing range of Vidal's work as an essayist. He can write about anything — history, politics, friends, enemies, literature, and sexuality — with easy erudition and surprising humor. He is one of the great English-language essayists, right up there with George Orwell.
Another Country by James Baldwin (Vintage, $15). In his essays and fiction, Baldwin usually kept his twin subjects of race and sexuality separate, but here he brought them together in a raw, powerful novel about a circle of friends — black and white, gay and straight — dealing with the suicide of a young jazz musician.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (Vintage, $15). Capote's 1965 true-crime story remains fresh and startling because of the beauty of its prose and the breadth of Capote's sympathetic imagination. He was able to connect with all the lives here: macho killers, good-citizen victims, even the police.
Christopher and His Kind by Christopher Isherwood (Univ. of Minnesota, $19). This is the true story behind the fiction of Cabaret, Isherwood's quick, smart, matter-of-fact account of gay love and political life in Europe on the eve of World War II. It's also one of the best portraits of an artist ever written.
The Night Listener by Armistead Maupin (Harper Perennial, $14). This semiautobiographical novel by the author of the Tales of the City series begins with a telephone friendship between Maupin and a teenager with AIDS. It becomes a cunning, Hitchcockian narrative on how stories, both true and false, shape people's lives.
— Christopher Bram's Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America will be published next week by Twelve.