The David Bowie Canon Is Here: Bowie’s Books By John O’Connell

Bowie's curriculum deserves to be the national curriculum, argues John Quin

Illustration by Luis Paadin

David Bowie was a voracious reader: no surprise there. But what did he really rate? We learnt something of his tastes in March 2013. Keen eyes at the opening of the exhibition David Bowie Is at the Victoria and Albert Museum sought out his list of key texts. John O’Connell was one such fan and in the introduction here he is careful to underline this was not Bowie’s ‘favourite’ books as such but those he regarded as the most important and influential to his life and work.

What we are presented with here is thus both an extended bibliography that provides clues to the meanings of some of Bowie’s songs and a set of recommendations, a handy starter for the autodidact, an escape route, as O’Connell puts it, “into other people, other perspectives, other consciousnesses”. And if tackled these books will, he promises, take you “out of yourself, only to put you back there infinitely enriched.”

There are other books with the same intent – equally useful as prompts to further reading. Martin Amis’ The Moronic Inferno is a helpful primer on late 20th century American literature. Anthony Burgess (listed twice by Bowie) published his own hot 100; this in turn had been inspired by Cyril Connolly’s selection of key books from the Modern Movement. Like these illustrious forebears O’Connell notes that Bowie “took huge pleasure in passing on what he had learned from others: when he loved a book he would, say friends, proselytize passionately on its behalf.”

O’Connell rightly reminds us that Bowie was a Mod and that his literary taste was consistently modernist: Camus, Eliot, Lawrence and Kerouac all feature here amongst others. We read part of an interview Bowie gave in 2003 where he talks about covering The Velvet Underground’s ‘I’m Waiting for the Man’. Bowie was proud that he had done this “before the album came out” quickly adding “now that’s the essence of Mod”. This in turn explains his own prompt approval of two shockingly early versions of ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ by The Associates and ‘Where Are We Now’ by Momus.

There are plenty of surprises here such as his love for true crime classics like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and travel narratives such as Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines. We learn more about Bowie’s friendships with writers like Hanif Kureishi and William Boyd. It’s also good to be reminded that Bowie loved a laugh and rated Keith Waterhouse. Humour features strongly with Viz, Private Eye, and Spike Milligan’s Puckoon all making the cut.

Not everything will be to your own personal taste, that much is predictable. Bowie’s fascination with the occult, with Gnosticism, with Rosicrucian lore, has, for me, an air of daffiness. There’s just a hint of derangement in a Lewes pub, one where the carpet has something awful drawn on it, before the locals head out to examine entrails, or burn someone on a bonfire.

To the books themselves: O’Connell does a fine job in summarising plots and arguments whilst doubling up with explanations linking the titles to key Bowie reference points. Take Lolita for example where Nabokov’s comment that an author’s best audience “is the person he sees in his shaving mirror every morning” reflecting back Bowie’s rueful observation about the Tonight album: “all my big mistakes are when I try to second-guess or please an audience”.

O’Connell isn’t afraid to be a judgmental: he thinks Colin Wilson’s The Outsider is “a bit rubbish” and castigates Bowie for that fleeting fascination with fascism after his frenzied LA sojourn. We read of Bowie’s ridiculously naïve idea that he could read his books about Goebbels on a train to Moscow: just the side effects of the cocaine no doubt. Ditto his Bright Young Thing look circa Let’s Dance that O’Connell correctly dismisses as “a little passé”. Inspiring a generation to wear sky blue trousers wasn’t the best of fashion moves. Anthony Burgess is also whipped for his “sometimes grandiose intellectual exhibitionism”, his delight in “pontificating on television”. But O’Connell is fair, he lauds Earthly Powers, rightly, as hugely pleasurable.

The singer’s Berlin years, the time of Low and ‘Heroes’, are linked with the inclusion of Berlin, Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin with its lowlife nightclubbing. There’s pleasure too in hearing that Bowie liked the revival of forgotten classics such as John Kennedy Toole’s wonderful A Confederacy of Dunces. And Bowie’s interest in modern art is underlined by the inclusion of Richard Cork’s book on David Bomberg and Arthur C. Danto’s thinking on Warhol in Beyond the Brillo box: The Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective. We are reminded that the singer was on the editorial board of the magazine Modern Painters in its late 90’s heyday.

I’m not 100% convinced by O’Connell’s “if you like this, try this” suggestions at the end of each entry or what song to listen to when reading. Having said that quite a few work such as ‘Move On’ being linked to Chatwin, or are startlingly apt like ‘Ziggy Stardust’ chiming with Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and her ‘thin white duchess’.

And then there are books here that are new to you, ones that join the pile you must read. For me these include James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. O’Connell notes that many of the books on Bowie’s list are “thrilling, fun or informative” but that Baldwin’s polemic is “essential”. I’m also keen to tackle Rupert Thomson’s The Insult on the strength of O’Connell’s summary and A Grave for a Dolphin by Alberto Denti di Piranjo if only to elucidate that line about swimming in ‘Heroes’.

This book celebrates the fact that, in O’Connell’s words, “Bowie’s work might have been inauthentic … but only rarely, in moments of personal or professional crisis, was it insincere”. This book is sincere, a work of love. O’Connell and Bowie signpost you to other great books and as such these tips seem ideal for the young. Teachers should lobby to get this on the National Curriculum.

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