The Book That Changed My Life: Geoff Dyer

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Portrait by Matt Stuart

Geoff Dyer's writings have encompassed virtually every subject under the sun. He's examined life on an aircraft carrier (Another Great Day At Sea), drawn inspiration from the lives of revered jazz musicians (But Beautiful), and envisioned a detective novel unlike any other (The Search). His essay collection Otherwise Known As the Human Condition won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism, and his latest book, White Sands: Experiences From the Outside World, covers some of the same territory. In the pieces collected there, Dyer writes about traveling across the world, his fondness for large-scale art, and how his life changed after having a stroke. In this interview, Dyer discusses the books that have had a substantial impact on his life and writing.

Is there one book in particular that you'd say has changed your life?
Culture and Society by Raymond Williams.

How did you first encounter it? And how would you say that it's helped alter the direction of your life?
I read it while living in Brixton after studying English at Oxford. It changed my understanding of the books I'd read there, enlarged my sense of how literature connected to a larger culture and politics, and enabled me to make sense, retrospectively, of the process I'd lived through: coming from a working-class family, passing exams, education, and all that that entailed.

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Has your relationship to it changed over time?
I went back to it recently because I was writing an introduction to another book by Williams — what an honor! — and felt again that original warmth and uplift. I read the same edition I'd first read more than thirty years earlier. It was dense with annotations. It remains a formative and wonderful book for me.

Your nonfiction includes writings about works that you admire by the likes of D.H. Lawrence, Rebecca West, and John Berger. Do you find yourself revisiting these books with any frequency?
Yes, definitely. There are always new bits and pieces of mad insight in Lawrence that I've not seen before: poems and paragraphs and things in the letters that amaze. You can turn to any page of West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon and find something incredible. I assumed I'd read everything in the new selection of Berger’s writings on art — Portraits, edited by Tom Overton — but there were some things I'd not seen before, like the piece on Rothko: mind-blowingly great.

White Sands opens with a note describing the line between fiction and nonfiction. Was there one work in particular that helped show that you that the line between the two was malleable?
Not a single work, but several books by Berger: Pig Earth, the first volume in the peasant trilogy, the book about Picasso (The Success and Failure of Picasso), and Art and Revolution — because of their formal innovation.

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