Olivia Laing: ‘I’m sorry, but Jane Eyre is a horrendous little hysteric’

My earliest reading memory
Before I could read, I was seduced by Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester. Embroidered poppies and pansies, “Alack, I am worn to a ravelling”, and especially the explosion of colour when the mayor’s cherry coat is flung across a table.

My favourite book growing up
The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper was set a few miles from where I grew up in the Chilterns, deep country then and no doubt now ravaged by HS2. It’s a time-slip story, in which ordinary 1980s domesticity continually gives way to other eras, and it nourished my obsession with how history lodges in physical places.

The book that changed me as a teenager
My cousin is 10 years and a day older than me, and she took my countercultural education very seriously. When I was 15 she sent me Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black by Cookie Mueller. It was a doorway into a Technicolor world of experimental art and high-risk adventure, a model I followed a bit too assiduously in my 20s.

The writer who changed my mind
I did media studies A-level at sixth form college, and had one of those life-changing teachers, Jeremy Points. He lent me Roland Barthes. S/Z flipped my lid. It had never occurred to me that novels might contain so many hidden layers of meanings, or that prising them open could reveal secrets about the culture from which they’d emerged.

The book that made me want to be a writer
William Burroughs was the first writer I encountered where narrative was totally superseded by something else: an autonomous zone built out of language and atmosphere. I didn’t know how it worked but it made me start to write, first just by copying his hypnotic, disarticulated sentences – “Dead leaves in the pissoir” – on to my teenage bedroom wall.

The book I came back to
I just read Paradise Lost for the first time, and aside from its world-building majesty, no one ever told me how funny it was, or how weird. Angelic sex, proto-smoothies, Adam’s disquisition on the…

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