Olivia Laing‘s Reading Piles Are Far From Organized

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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.

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