REVIEW

For David Bowie, reading was happiness, and books inspired much of his work

Bowie's Books, as John O'Connell has stated, "isn't the story of David Bowie's life... But it is a look at the tools he used to navigate his life, not to mention a shot in the arm for the unfashionable theory, one that I've always liked, that reading makes you a better person".

David Bowie circa 1966, when he went by the stage name of Davy (or Davie) Jones. Picture: CA/Redferns/Getty Images

David Bowie circa 1966, when he went by the stage name of Davy (or Davie) Jones. Picture: CA/Redferns/Getty Images

Bowie once said that his idea of perfect happiness was reading. Books inspired his work and persona, they were "tools he used to navigate his life". Three years before his death in 2016, Bowie listed the 100 books that he considered the most important and influential, not necessarily his "favourite books", out of the thousands he had read during his life. Only 13 of the books Bowie selected were by women.

Touring America in the 1970s, Bowie carried around a 1,500-volume "mobile bibliotheque". In 2013, the booked-out Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition David Bowie Is, which subsequently came to Melbourne, featured a selection of his favourite books suspended from the roof .

Music journalist John O'Connell analyses the books in 100 short essays, each offering a perspective on Bowie's life, songs, films and performances. O'Connell has said, "I thought it would be fun to tease out connections between the titles and Bowie's life and work".

Where did it all begin? Bowie underperformed at school, leaving in 1963 with one O level in art. He was, however, a voracious reader, reading, as a child, comics such as The Beano and then moving on as a teenager to Penguin paperbacks. including Lady Chatterley's Lover.

His older half- brother Terry encouraged him to read the Beats, notably Jack Kerouac's On the Road, with its themes of "freedom, escape, spontaneity and creativity". Reading opened up a world far beyond Bowie's suburban Bromley.

British fiction of the 1950's and 1960s feature in the list, including Keith Waterhouse's Billy Liar, Colin Wilson's The Outsider, and John Braine's Room at the Top, reflecting "a working class desire for self-improvement".

Bowie's literary tastes were eclectic, including, in no particular order, Private Eye and Viz magazines, Sarah Waters, Dante, Spike Milligan, Evelyn Waugh ,Vladimir Nabokov, Albert Camus, William Faulkner, Don DeLillo, Yukio Mishima, Tom Stoppard. Camille Paglia, Angela Carter, Bruce Chatwin and Julian Barnes.

Bowie was a prodigious reader of science-fiction, although it is sparsely represented in the 100 titles. O'Connell says "an obsession with space, estrangement and alternative worlds", runs through Bowie's work, from 'Space Oddity' at one end to 'Blackstar' at the other. Stephen King was in a favourite author who "scares the shit out of me", but there is no King title in the list.

Similarly, many occult authors are missing, such as Aleister Crowley. O'Connell speculates that the exclusion of such titles was because Bowie didn't want to revisit his cocaine-influenced years, which "he later came to regard as an awful, depressed period of his life". This was a period when Bowie said he saw the devil materialising in his Los Angeles swimming pool.

Bowie's spiritual search is represented by books on Tibetan Buddhism, the Kaballah, Gnosticism and Rosicrucianism, which provide a collective background to what O'Connell describes as "Bowie's hazy personal cosmology".

George Steiner's In Bluebeard's Castle was his introduction to postmodernism, confirming for Bowie that "there was actually some kind of theory to what I was doing". O'Connell reflects that, in the early 1970s, Bowie embraced "this newly found pluralistic vocabulary, this whole George Steiner-ism of life".

Bowie once said "The only art I'll ever study is the stuff that I can steal from." Bowie's artistic interests are represented by several books including James Hall's Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art and Arthur C. Danto's collection, Beyond the Brillo Box.

Of the 100 authors, only George Orwell and Anthony Burgess appear twice. Bowie was influenced by Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, and the subsequent Kubrick movie which impinged on Ziggy Stardust and his last album, 'Blackstar'. O'Connell believes the books of Christopher Isherwood and John Rechy also influenced the creation of Ziggy Stardust.

O'Connell has great fun identifying the literary sources for many of Bowie's famous lyrics. Nadsat, the Burgess Anglo-Russian slang, features in 'Suffragette City' and decades later in 'Girl Loves Me'. George Orwell's 1984 inspired 'Big Brother', '1984' and 'We Are the Dead', in Bowie's 1974 album 'Diamond Dogs'.

In 'Heroes', the line "I wish you could swim like dolphins can swim" was inspired by a story in the memoir A Grave For a Dolphin by Alberto Denti di Pirajno. O'Connell locates the source for the 'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore' in Burgess's Earthly Powers.

When Bowie sings In 'Breaking Glass', "Don't look at the carpet/I drew something awful on it", he is referencing the summoning of demons by drawing symbols, as mentioned by French occult author Éliphas Lévi in Transcendental Magic.

Some of O'Connell's links from the texts to Bowie's lyrics are somewhat tenuous, but overall he succeeds in persuading the reader that Bowie's life is an open book.

  • Bowie's Books: The Hundred Literary Heroes Who Changed His Life, by John O'Connell. Bloomsbury. $34.99.
This story David Bowie's life in books first appeared on The Canberra Times.