From Orwell to Fitzgerald: the 100 books that influenced David Bowie's life

The rock legend's literary tastes ranged widely, from novels and poems to works of philosophy, history and biography

English singer-songwriter, David Bowie (1947 - 2016), circa 1966, when he went by the stage name of Davy (or Davie) Jones.(Photo by CA/Redferns/Getty Images)
Powered by automated translation

The outpouring of grief that greeted the death of David Bowie in January 2016 reflected his status as a genuine global superstar and the breadth of his influence on the past half century. Tributes from all corners of the music industry were augmented by appreciations from the world of film, art, business, technology, fashion and celebrity. We were even reminded that in 1977 Bowie narrated Sergei Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf.

Eagle-eyed bibliophiles might have noted one of his less-­heralded roles: as an occasional book reviewer for Barnes and Noble. "My dad was a beast of a reader," said Duncan Jones, Bowie's son, in 2018, while announcing the launch of the Bowie Book Club, an online forum and podcast. The bibliography was inspired by the list of 100 books that Bowie himself compiled for the 2013 retrospective at London's Victoria and Albert Museum.

As you might expect from someone of his diverse cultural portfolio, Bowie's literary tastes ranged widely, from novels and poems to works of philosophy, history and biography. They spanned the ancient (Dante's The Divine Comedy and Homer's Iliad) and the modern (Sarah Waters's Fingersmith, Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao), and the famous (Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby) and the obscure (Elaine Pagels's The Gnostic Gospels).

Revered works of art criticism (such as David Sylvester's interviews with Francis Bacon) rub shoulders with Viz, a scurrilous British comic famous for its toilet humour. Quirky titles such as the UK satirical magazine Private Eye or Frank Edwards's Strange People sit beside the forbidding: Arthur C Danto's essays, The Brillo Box.

The list has, appropriately, inspired a book of its own by British author John O'Connell. Entitled Bowie's Books, its 100 chapters (101 if you count the introduction) meditate on Bowie's relationship with each text, and recommend a suitable song by the musician himself to listen to while reading. George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four is an obvious match for Big Brother from Diamond Dogs. Albert Camus's The Outsider suggests Valentine's Day (from 2013's The Next Day). The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark is paired with Ziggy Stardust.

A self-proclaimed Bowie "fanatic", O'Connell is perfectly placed to tease out the list's multifarious possibilities. "As a superfan, I paid unnaturally close attention to everything he did or sang or said in interviews," O'Connell writes. "Bowie opened so many doors and pointed me in the direction of so many great artists, writers, photographers, filmmakers."

For O'Connell, the list not only epitomises this "proselytising urge", but also Bowie's "generosity". "When he was enthused about something, he wanted others to be enthusiastic about it, too," O'Connell says.

But just how intense was this literary enthusiasm? You could cite the book's opening anecdote, in which Bowie decided to read his way through cocaine withdrawal while filming The Man Who Fell to Earth in 1975. While Bowie's drug addiction was famously prodigious at this time, so, too, was the portable library that accompanied him everywhere: the fold-out trunks contained more than 1,500 titles, many detailing his then obsession with the occult.

Such an appetite, which would put most university scholars to shame, was born of unquenchable natural curiosity and also, perhaps, the insecurity of the autodidact, eager to proclaim their intellectual credentials.

Bookworms like Bowie aren't incredibly common in the rock world. We know Beyonce's a poetry fan, sampling Warsan Shire on her Lemonade album. John Lydon can quote John Keats's La Belle Dame sans Merci by heart. More than a few musicians have written novels, from Leonard Cohen to Pete Townshend. But the stereotypical portrait of a rock star is that of a bibliophobe who'd rather party than read a good book.

To risk a massive generalisation, I think rock stars in the '60s and early '70s were more literate. They'd been exposed to books and were proud of that exposure. Books, especially Penguin paperbacks, meant a lot to that postwar generation.

"To risk a massive generalisation," O'Connell says, "I think rock stars in the '60s and early '70s were more literate. They'd been exposed to books and were proud of that exposure. Books, especially Penguin paperbacks, meant a lot to that postwar generation. They were little capsules of democratised knowledge. The idea that the written word had radical, subversive potential was much on people's minds after the Lady Chatterley trial. There are still literate rock stars – Nick Cave, Radiohead. But on the whole people have quite low expectations of them intellectually. Which is unfair, I think."

A tantalising joy of Bowie's Books is to ponder what the list reveals about him as an artist and reader. Does his selection of D H Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover manifest a relish for the outre and transgressive? This is one of several "banned books", alongside Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, Hubert Selby Jr's Last Exit to Brooklyn, Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange and Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita.

What would O'Connell propose as some unifying themes? "Mental health, schizophrenia, freaks and misfits, suburban ennui and the occult. More specifically, the charged space between rationalist thinking and magical thinking – something that's explored in [Angela Carter's] Nights at the Circus and Hawksmoor [by Peter Ackroyd]. There's a mistrust of science but a high tolerance of slightly cranky, idiosyncratic pseudoscience, like The Origin of Consciousness."

Here is Bowie’s characteristic distaste for fixity writ large, or perhaps small. “He’d rather things were left open and unresolved. I think Bowie felt that the best creative work occurred when people didn’t overthink things, when they trusted their instincts and allowed irrational or unconscious forces to guide them.”

When The National suggests a similar interest in self-presentation, O'Connell agrees wholeheartedly. "Yes, he's clearly obsessed with dandyism. So many books are either by dandies (Edward Bulwer Lytton, Mishima) or about them (Gatsby). That idea of becoming who you want to be by practising is important. His approach to consuming art was about taking what he could from it. 'Can I plunder this either by writing a song or in a stance I'm adopting in an interview?' That sounds as if I'm accusing him of cynicism, but I'm not. That's just how his brain worked. He was a natural magpie."

NEW YORK - 1973: Rock and roll musician David Bowie poses for a portrait dressed as 'Ziggy Stardust' in a hotel room in 1973 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)  *** Local Caption ***  al12ja-david-bowie08.jpg
David Bowie poses for a portrait dressed as Ziggy Stardust in a hotel room in 1973. Getty Images

As O'Connell's excellent introduction makes clear, Bowie's reading list doesn't comprise his "favourite" books (there's no room for Stephen King, Hanif Kureishi or Jorge Luis Borges), but those he "considered the most important and influential".

Did any writers or books stand out? "Clearly Burgess and Orwell were especially important as they're the only writers who each get two books. On the Road [by Jack Kerouac], too, has a significance it's impossible to overstate."

Kerouac's experiments with "spontaneous prose" not only taught Bowie "how art could be made", but imbued creation with something akin to a spiritual quest. Just as important, O'Connell writes, is the fire On the Road lit under the young David Jones (his real name): "I wanna do that [drive across America]," Bowie told Q Magazine in 1999. "I do not wanna go down to Bromley Station and take the train to Victoria station and work in an advertising office again."

Books really can take you places, both imaginatively and literally. Wherever Bowie is today, I hope he's not far from a good library.