Olivia Laing's 6 favorite books
The acclaimed nonfiction writer recommends David Wojnarowicz, Virginia Woolf, and more
Olivia Laing, a British editor and critic acclaimed for The Lonely City, The Trip to Echo Spring, and other works of nonfiction, recently published her first novel. Crudo is narrated by a writer weathering a tumultuous 2017 summer.
Close to the Knives by David Wojnarowicz (Vintage, $16).
Wojnarowicz is rightly heralded as an artist, but it's his writing that captivates me. Knives is his masterwork: a memoir-in-fragments that tracks his violent boyhood, his sexual encounters in pre-gentrification New York, and his battles as an AIDS activist. Visceral and dreamlike in its visual power, his account of passionate resistance is vital.
Orlando by Virginia Woolf (Mariner, $15).
This October, it will be 90 years since Orlando was first published. Woolf's most playful book remains strikingly relevant today, not least for its sustained and elegant argument about the fluidity of gender.
The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald (New Directions, $17).
It puzzles me that Sebald is so often written about in terms of re-enchantment when his true project was to reveal violence, drawing back the veil on grand houses and great works of art to expose a legacy of war and colonial atrocity. Don't be lulled by the splendor of his sentences: This is writing dead set on laying bare the poisonous architecture of power.
Modern Nature by Derek Jarman (Univ. of Minnesota, $19).
When the filmmaker Derek Jarman was diagnosed HIV positive in 1986, he began building a garden on a desolate beach. Modern Nature is his extraordinarily inspiring diary from those difficult years, documenting the ravages of illness and homophobia as well as the sustaining joy of making art.
Selected Poems by Frank O'Hara (Knopf, $20).
O'Hara is the great poet of the shifting self, the patron saint of the fleeting pleasure and the oscillating anxiety. I love his light-footedness, his easy shifts between high art and hot dogs, his open heart, and his casual glamour.
The Boy Who Followed Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (Norton, $14).
I often return to the five perfect Ripley novels, fascinated by the coolness of their construction, their strangely flat sentences, and their obsessive interest in forgeries and fakes. Ripley's queerness flickers in and out of focus and is particularly visible here. Corpses are disgustingly hard to dispose of, but the true horror is the vision of a world absolutely void of meaning or justice. Exquisitely chilling.