Bowie and his favourite books
New York 1987: During a commercially viable but artistically difficult period in his career, David Bowie made an advertisement for the American Library Association. He is pictured dressed in classical 1980s fashion, wearing a Letterman Varsity jacket and tight jeans, bare-footed, soaring through the air, reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel, The Idiot. ‘The Idiot’ was also the name […]
New York 1987: During a commercially viable but artistically difficult period in his career, David Bowie made an advertisement for the American Library Association. He is pictured dressed in classical 1980s fashion, wearing a Letterman Varsity jacket and tight jeans, bare-footed, soaring through the air, reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel, The Idiot. ‘The Idiot’ was also the name of an album he helped make with a more visceral rock and roll star, Iggy Pop.
Sometimes such a promotion can be dismissed as a PR stunt. But the late great David Bowie was genuinely a lover of books and knowledge, a voracious reader, and a supporter of libraries. He left school with only one O level, but he could not connect with the school curriculum, and he spent a lot of his time as a teen following his half-brother, Terry to jazz clubs around London. But even as he launched a popular music career, he became an autodidact, educating himself informally through reading a huge amount of novels, poetry and factual writing. Later he would take a hoard of books on tour with him.
A great deal of his reading directly influenced his lyrics and career decisions in the 1970s. In 2013 a formal list of his 100 favourite written works was published, confirming many remarks and recommendations he had made down through the years. Many of them are famous or well-known titles, but some are less mainstream works, often dealing with psychology, and a few are hard to find now. His choices are listed here.
The fictional figure of Ziggy Stardust was inspired by earlier rock stars but Bowie’s pessimistic worldview in the early 1970s was strongly influenced by George Orwell and his dystopian novel, 1984. Bowie tried to buy the rights to 1984 to make a musical of the novel. Orwell’s widow refused, but there was a similarly grim and musically theatrical vision of the future in the album Diamond Dogs. He was always drawn to dystopian visions that held the trappings of science fiction and alternate futures. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgees offered a twisted view of future violent youth gangs, written in a slang invented by the author.
As for so many in the post-war generation, the glamour, music and vastness of the United States had an allure that could not be matched by dull suburban Britain. On the Road by Jack Kerouac became a huge worldwide influence in the 1950s and romanticised the seemingly limitless frontiers of post-war America. But he spent a turbulent period in Los Angeles and his reservations about the dark side of the American dream are reflected in his championing of dark, dissident American writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Hubert Selby Jnr, and the Truman Capote of In Cold Blood. Bowie was also very influenced by the ultimate outsider writer, William S. Burroughs, and he used the random montage cut-up writing technique of the Missouri author in his own lyrical methods during the 1970s.
In 1977 Bowie followed the footpath of a favourite English expatriate writer, Christopher Isherwood, in travelling to Berlin when his career needed renewal. During that period Bowie and Iggy Pop were pictured at the guard posts of the German border, before travelling into Eastern Germany. A look at his 100 books shortlist reveals a fascination with Berlin and with Soviet Russia, not least the influence of the USSR on Orwell’s 1984. Orlando Fige’s A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1890-1924 is included in his recommendations, along with Arthur Koestler’s magisterial novel Darkness at Noon, and Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margharita, an anti-Stalinist magic realist novel by that could not be published during the author’s lifetime for fear of state retribution. Mick Jagger also loved Bulgakov’s dizzying narrative and it inspired the song, ‘Sympathy for the Devil’.
During the 1980s Bowie featured in the movie adaptation of a novel he cherished, Colm MacInnes’ Absolute Beginners (1959). The narrative was set in 1950s London where a new youth culture formed around jazz music, amidst the spectre of race riots. It resonated with Bowie’s experiences as a teen. Unfortunately the film wasn’t well received, but the novel’s merits remain as a part of British literary culture. Other books of that time period set in England are cited. He enjoyed later authors like Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and Peter Ackroyd, who viewed their subject matter with a taste for the comic and grotesque. In a step away from actual books, also included are the irreverent Private Eye and Viz magazines collectively, and the comics, the Beano and Raw.
Fingal Libraries have a lot of the book titles on the list, while others are available to order.
By Fergus O’ Reilly – Blanchardstown Library