Olivia Laing‘s Reading Piles Are Far From Organized

“There are something like 15,000 books in our house,” says the author of “Everybody” and other books, “including pretty much every poetry pamphlet published in the 20th century. It’s a problem.”

What books are on your night stand?

Seed catalogs, and a book that says on the cover “Bear I love you, bite my head off” (on closer inspection it’s called “Bear,” by Marian Engel).

What’s the last great book you read?

“In the Cut,” by Susanna Moore. Vicious, idiosyncratic, stylish, erotic, frightening. It’s a noirish feminist thriller about a woman who witnesses a murder. Up there with the great New York novels.

Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?

“Persuasion.” An incident takes place on Lyme Regis beach that made me gasp out loud. I love all Austen but here the froth has worn away. It’s such a tender, autumnal book.

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

In the bath, with a beer, topping up the hot water with my toe. I’d live in the bath if I could.

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?

I don’t know about “no one,” but “Love’s Work,” by Gillian Rose, is not nearly well enough known. It’s a memoir written while Rose was dying of cancer, and is extraordinarily beautiful. The phrase “our lovely eating of the sun” often bumps through my head.

What book should everybody read before the age of 21?

I don’t think there’s a single book, but I do think reading a lot from the distant past furnishes one’s head with rich, strange language and cadence that stays around forever.

What book should nobody read until the age of 40?

Despite what I’ve just said about “Persuasion,” I think Jane Austen gets funnier the older you are. The characters around the edges become more visible, and their absurdities more painfully familiar.

Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?

Ali Smith, Philip Hoare. Always original, always themselves, always pushing form somewhere new.

Do you count any books as guilty pleasures?

Despite being a card-carrying convent girl, I don’t feel guilt about pleasure.

What writers are especially good on the politics of the body?

Over the five years that I was writing “Everybody,” I read hundreds of books on the body so I give this list with some confidence. Deep breath: Andrea Dworkin, James Baldwin, Kathy Acker, Audre Lorde, Malcolm X and our old friend Sigmund Freud. The novels and not-novels of Marguerite Duras and Angela Carter are always acute about women’s physical and especially sexual lives. Sarah Kane gets down to the marrow in a cheerless way; you might want to chase her with Joe Orton for a bit of levity. Alison Light’s “Mrs. Woolf and the Servants” is astonishing on the complex interrelations between bodies and class, bodies and gender. I read it just as I was finishing “Everybody,” and it really got under the skin, so to speak, of the kind of horror bodies can engender, and the kind of cruelties it can lead to.

Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?

My husband doesn’t like Sebald. I find that troubling.

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?

Dogs have 10 nipples.

Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?

It’s not what you say, it’s the way that you say it.

What moves you most in a work of literature?

Well, I always cry if animals are very brave or die, but what I’m really after is an assemblage of sentences that makes me reel.

Which genres do you especially enjoy reading?

I love detective fiction, especially the ladies of the golden age — Margery Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers, Josephine Tey. And I can always read le Carré. Raymond Chandler too. I love the constraints and especially all the telling period detail that spills in. Patricia Highsmith! I’d be totally happy reading Ripley and Smiley on rotation for decades. Chilly novels that snap like a mousetrap. Delicious.

How do you organize your books?

I live with a former book dealer/retired Cambridge don and there are something like 15,000 books in our house, including pretty much every poetry pamphlet published in the 20th century. It’s a problem. Books spill over in every room. There are ardent piles by each chair, and yesterday I found several forgotten boxes in the potting shed. The house is too old and crumbly for shelves so for now we’re letting them roost where they will.

What book might people be surprised to find in your stacks?

“Practical Lurcher Breeding,” by D. Brian Plummer.

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?

For my 40th birthday my mother gave me first editions of Woolf’s diaries. That was a magical present. I remember being entranced by the bindings as a child — the pale pink and duck egg blue spines with Bloomsbury crosshatching. Those would be my desert island books: the best possible mind to be accompanied by.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

Obsessive. I lived inside books. I was miserable and lonely and out of my depth and books were an alternate reality I could enter at will. My favorite was probably Susan Cooper’s “The Dark Is Rising,” which is set in the Chilterns a few miles from where I grew up. It gave me a sense of the landscape as wild and animate, and introduced me to myths that run right through English literature. My parents were divorced and there were a lot of long car journeys between their houses. My father hit on the then-pretty ingenious idea of buying audiobooks on cassette tape, and we listened to “Three Men in a Boat,” “The Wind in the Willows” and the ghost stories of M. R. James so often I know great tracts by heart. As a slightly older reader, I was wild for the Tillerman novels by Cynthia Voigt and the Alanna adventures by Tamora Pierce, about a girl who disguises herself as a boy to become a knight.

How have your reading tastes changed over time?

I’ve got less and less interested in contemporary fiction.

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

“Solitary,” by Albert Woodfox, as a prelude to closing prison after prison after prison.

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

William Burroughs. I’m looking forward to talking to him, but also shooting a few apples off his head. Nancy Mitford, for jollity, and Gary Indiana, who I hope might be persuaded to sing.

What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?

I feel bad about not having read Proust, but I also think the moment will come and I will surrender to it like a madeleine succumbing to lime flower tea.

What do you plan to read next?

I am going to gird my loins and read “Paradise Lost.” My next book is about the long dream of paradise and I’m looking forward to reading lots of Milton and Blake, ideally in an edenic garden while eating very crunchy apples.

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