The books that changed my life

Marina Warner chooses Meditations on a Hobby Horse and Mythologies

It must have been October 1963 and we were gathered on the pavement outside the Oxford Playhouse after Edgar Wind had given one of his Slade Lectures, and I was expostulating against Wind's way of identifying textual references and intellectual intentions behind every line, stroke and figure of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling. The theatre had been crammed; in an era before health and safety ruled, we were squashed in hugger-mugger on the steps and in the aisles. Wind would arrive on the hour, begin without preamble, and talk without pause or stumble, while beautifully luminous glass lantern slides of the frescoes appeared above him. At ten to the hour, with quartz crystal precision, he ceased to speak and quit the theatre, his black robe in thrilling liquefaction behind him, as he hastened through the thronged and adoring listeners without exchanging a word with anyone. I was just as enthralled by his performance as my friends, but I'd been raised on formalism and modernism, and Wind's arcane scholarly archaeologies, in which every fledge of an angel's coverts depended on a long-neglected Neoplatonist scribal error, seemed to overlook art's first and intrinsic, real as well as ideal character: its visual pleasures and how they are achieved.

But. But. But. Wind's lecture series was fateful for me. For my 18th birthday, which fell during that term, a friend gave me Ernst Gombrich's Meditations on a Hobby Horse, which had just appeared. As decryption goes, Gombrich is the master (Wind an enduring rival). Gombrich could discover pattern and relation, meaning and allusion in imagery across very diverse social strata and media, learned to demotic, and this collection of essays did not provoke rebellion in me in the way Wind's lectures had. Hobby Horse is an exuberant book - exuberant with a certain solemnity, like a very large man executing eightsome reels with great seriousness but wonderfully light feet all the same. There, Gombrich passionately reveals that history, politics, philosophy can be condensed into the most ordinary artefacts that lie around in our everyday lives - such as a child's toy, the hobby horse of the title.

That year, Gombrich became one of the heroes of our discussions and inquiries. The art historian Caroline Elam, who was then reading classics, led the way in exploring his other books - Art and Illusion from three years earlier also had the force of revelation. This form of cultural criticism, which refuses to split aesthetics from history, philosophy, politics, and other branches of human imagination and activity, was fashioned above all by Aby Warburg, whose approach and immense powers of imagination and intellect are embodied in the library he founded, and remain the philosophy of that incomparable foundation, the Warburg Institute. In the 1930s, the Warburg took refuge in Britain from the Third Reich, and Gombrich began working there, on Warburg's writings, and there he remained, the presiding genius loci, for the rest of his life.

Warburg's collections were entrusted to the University of London in 1944, and until now have been rightly cherished as one of its greatest international treasures. So it is indeed a dark sign of our current cultural climate that the managers of that institution have announced they want to "rationalise" and are moving to erode the Warburg's independence and even threatening amalgamation of its wondrous, idiosyncratic and unique library with Senate House. The decision is being strongly contested by the Warburg itself. It would a shameful thing that this bequest be broken up and that the institute might have to consider moving abroad, as it had to flee Nazi Germany.

The book that truly gave me my "Eureka!" moment was Mythologies by Roland Barthes - in a bookshop in Washington, DC in 1972. I was writing my study of the Virgin Mary, which would appear four years later, and was fumbling towards understanding her cult. Here, in Barthes's essays about the relations of myth and ideology, and especially in the closing, extended essay, "Myth Today", he was expressing the ideas I was trying to shape for myself. I reeled and my pulse raced as, standing up in the shop, I began reading it.

To my mind now, Barthes is too swingeing, too implacable, too much of the French revolutionary pur et dur in his denunciation of myth's collusion with power. But the book did clear the horizon for me then in an utterly elating way. However, I could never have grasped his arguments or even recognised what he was saying without the ground laid by the iconographical decoding work that I'd encountered before, through Wind and, far more importantly, through Gombrich, from whom I learned that there is no stroke of the pen or brush that can be innocent of meanings reaching out into the world.

"Meditations on a Hobby Horse and Other Essays on the Theory of Art" (Phaidon, £14.95); "Mythologies" (Vintage £7.99)The books that changed my life

Marina Warner chooses Meditations on a Hobby Horse and Mythologies

This article first appeared in the 26 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Nixon went to China... Will Obama go to Iran?