Staff Picks

The David Bowie Book Club

It's hard to believe that it's already been one year since David Bowie left this world. His contributions to the world of popular music are incalculable, to say nothing of his impact as a style icon. But among the various larger-than-life personas that Bowie assumed throughout his career (Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, Jareth the Goblin King), you can add one more: bibliophile.

David Bowie for America's libraries
It's true - the Starman himself was a regular bookworm, just like us! When Vanity Fair asked Bowie to complete the famous Proust Questionnaire in 1998, his answer to the first question, "What is your idea of perfect happiness?" was succinct: "Reading." And to prove this point, in 2013 he compiled and published on his official website a list of his 100 favorite books, along with the suggestion that dedicated fans could start a Bowie Book Club. His choices were unsurprisingly eclectic, ranging from poetry to sociology to comic books, and spanning the 8th century BC (Homer's The Iliad) up through 2008 (Susan Jacoby's The Age Of American Unreason).

Although several of the titles that he chose are no longer in print, plenty of these books are available to be checked out at DPPL today. Any one of the six books listed below would be a fine introduction to a proverbial Bowie Book Club, as they all deal with themes and topics central to some of Bowie's finest music. (And if you're unfamiliar with the man's work, the recent double-CD compilation Nothing Has Changed is a fine primer.)

"A Clockwork Orange" by Anthony Burgess. Anthony Burgess's violent, dystopian vision had a profound influence on Bowie, as did Stanley Kubrick's iconic film adaptation of the book. According to Bowie, "the inset photographs of the inside sleeve for Ziggy owed a lot to the Malcolm McDowell look from the poster," and Burgess's invented language of Nadsat (a mixture of Russian words and English slang) crops up in both the classic Ziggy Stardust single "Suffragette City" and one of Bowie's final songs, "Girl Loves Me" from Blackstar.

"Vile Bodies" by Evelyn Waugh. Evelyn Waugh's second novel made an impression on Bowie as he read it during his first American tour. He described the book as "[dealing] with London in the period just before a massive, imaginary war. People were frivolous, decadent and silly, and suddenly they were plunged into this horrendous holocaust. They were totally out of place, still thinking about champagne and parties and dressing up. Somehow it seemed to me that they were like people today." This insight provided the inspiration for the title track of 1973's Aladdin Sane.

"1984" by George Orwell. Another dystopian classic, 1984 remains a chilling warning on the dangers of totalitarianism, even as many of the book's concepts such as Big Brother, the Thought Police and doublethink have passed into common parlance. The book served as the inspiration for a never-realized musical with bespoke songs contributed by Bowie. When Sonia Orwell (George's widow) denied permission to the producers, three of the tunes written for the project ("We Are The Dead," "Big Brother" and "1984") appeared on his 1974 record Diamond Dogs.

"A People's History of the United States" by Howard Zinn. Bowie was fascinated by the many dualities of the United States. As far back as his response to his first American fan letter in 1967, he was musing about the realism of film portrayals of America being broadcast in England, and this dichotomy later became a theme in such songs as "Young Americans," "This Is Not America" and "I'm Afraid Of Americans." So it isn't surprising that he recommended Howard Zinn's exhaustive and controversial account of American history, which offers a perspective that differs considerably from traditional textbooks by giving marginalized and oppressed voices a primary role in the narrative.

"Mystery Train" by Greil Marcus. Subtitled "Images of America in Rock 'N' Roll Music," Marcus's 1975 tome collects six essays reflecting upon the impact of six seminal musicans on American culture at large. The concluding essay, "Presliad," remains one of most insightful writings about Elvis Presley, who David Bowie once called "a major hero of mine ... I was probably stupid enough to believe that having the same birthday as him actually meant something."

"The Waste Land" by T. S. Eliot. Although Bowie demurred when William S. Burroughs called his writing "very reminiscent of The Waste Land" during a 1973 meeting, Eliot's style, which features allusions to both high-brow and low-brow past texts and abrupt shifts of tone, sets a direct precedent for such genre-bending albums as Hunky Dory. Eliot once famously wrote that "immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different." You would be hard pressed to find a rock musician that embodies this description of a "good poet" better than David Bowie.

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