Bowie's Books

John O’Connell

Bloomsbury, £16.99

Review by Alastair Mabbott

In 2013, David Bowie published a list of his 100 favourite books. Six years on, John O’Connell has used that list to chart the musician's artistic and personal development and examine how he “distilled” his reading into his art.

Bowie was never shy about admitting his influences. And in books he found not only inspiration for his work but “tools he used to navigate his life”, as he figured out in a process spanning decades who he was supposed to be.

Bowie may have sloughed off his old personae like dead skin, but the list reveals how much he clung on to from one phase of his life to the next. O’Connell notes how many of the “Mod books” still mattered to him, even in the final years of his life. From Kerouac’s On the Road, he divines much of Bowie’s future: his need to break out of Bromley into a larger world, his conception of making art as a spiritual quest, even some of his working methods.

A number of books from his most formative years make the list, including Billy Liar, Room at the Top, The Outsider and especially A Clockwork Orange, which cast a shadow long enough to influence his final album, Blackstar.

Similarly, his fascination with the spiritual and occult didn’t evaporate along with his massive cocaine habit. Crowley and the darker, heavier mystics are absent, perhaps because, as O’Connell suggests, “he simply didn’t want to revisit what he later came to regard as an awful, depressed period of his life”, but the books that introduced him to Tibetan Buddhism, the Kaballah, Gnosticism and Rosicrucianism are present and correct.

Some of the most interesting inclusions are those most directly related to how he conceived and practised his art. Hall’s Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art made the 100, an essential work for decoding the meanings of paintings and particularly useful for a man who was himself a one-man cottage industry of iconography.

George Steiner’s In Bluebeard’s Castle was his introduction to postmodernism, confirming “that there was actually some kind of theory to what I was doing”, and O’Connell suggests that The Waste Land was important to Bowie at least partially for TS Eliot’s belief that a poet is engaged in “a constant dialogue with his or her predecessors, who exist not in some dusty past but in a kind of timeless simultaneity”.

Other selections encompass his interest in Japanese culture, African-American authors, a handful of modern English-speaking novelists whose interests intersected with his own and, most Bowie-esque of all, those rare books when art, philosophy, mysticism, science fiction and some private totemic significance all merge and vibrate in tune with what the author diplomatically describes as “Bowie’s hazy personal cosmology”.

O’Connell relates it all with an unpretentious fannishness, making intelligent connections with lightness and wit and identifying the literary sources for many of his most famous lyrics, some of which must have been gestating in Bowie’s brain for years.