A peek into the psyche of one of rock’s most inscrutable figures through the books that had the strongest impact on him.
In 2013, London’s Victoria & Albert Museum hosted an exhibition, “David Bowie Is,” for which the star drafted a list of the 100 books that had influenced him. O’Connell, a veteran music journalist, gamely delivers brief essays on each title, with context on what influence Bowie might have drawn from them. This is sometimes a tall order. Many of Bowie’s selections speak to his obvious passion for music, especially early rock ’n’ roll and R&B (Greil Marcus, Gerri Hershey), his famous Japanophilia (Yukio Mishima, Tadanori Yokoo), and his stint in Germany (Alfred Döblin, Otto Friedrich). There are a few surprising anecdotes—e.g., Alberto Denti di Pirajno’s obscure 1956 memoir, A Grave for a Dolphin directly inspired Bowie’s classic song “Heroes.” But many of Bowie’s selections don’t lend themselves to such cause-and-effect treatment. The best O’Connell can make of Bowie’s affection for Frank Norris’ McTeague and William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying is that teeth feature prominently and Bowie had dental implants; he can only speculate that Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard appealed for its story of a giant in decline. That straining for meaning suggests that this project might better have been approached thematically rather than book by book. Exploring Bowie’s interest in transgressive literature by Hubert Selby, Mikhail Bulgakov, Jack Kerouac, and John Rechy needn’t require extensive plot summaries of each novel; numerous books on divided selves speak collectively to Bowie’s career-long shape-shifting (and his late schizophrenic half brother). Still, O’Connell’s approach does underscore the range and playfulness in Bowie’s reading, from hefty tomes on the Russian Revolution to laddish comic books like The Beano.
An enlightening if imperfectly conceived look at Bowie’s eclectic bookshelf.