“The truth is, of course, that there is no journey. We are arriving and departing all at the same time.” David Bowie died at the age of 69 from cancer. He was his own creation, constantly reinventing who David Bowie was; whether he was the personas Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke.
No matter what his on-stage or on-screen identity was, Bowie always identified with the outsider. He attributed this to his elder half-brother, “Terry probably gave me the greatest servicable education that I could ever have had. He just introduced me to outside things. The first real major event for me was when he passed Jack Kerouac’s On The Road to me, which really changed my life.” Reading Kerouac at the age of fifteen and then, later, Allen Ginsberg, made him long to get out of Bromley, where he grew up.
“My brother was one of the bigger influences in my life, in as much as he told me I didn’t have to read the choice of books that I as recommended at school, and that I could go out to the library and go and choose my own, and sort of introduced me to authors that I wouldn’t have read.probably. You know, the usual things like the Jack Kerouacs, the Ginsbergs, the ee Cummings and stuff.”
David Bowie wasn’t a model student and left Bromley Technical High School with just one ‘0’ level (in art), but he said of himself, “I’m a real self-educated kind of guy. I read voraciously. Every book I ever bought, I have. I can’t throw it away. It’s physically impossible to leave my hand! Some of them are in warehouses. I’ve got a library that I keep the ones I really really like. I look around my library some nights and I do these terrible things to myself–I count up the books and think, how long I might have to live and think, I can’t read two-thirds of these books.’ It overwhelms me with sadness.”
In an interview with Vanity Fair, he was asked what his idea of personal happiness was, Bowie simply replied, “Reading.”
His reading tastes were eclectic and extensive. Film producer Jerry Thomas said of Bowie, “We bonded over a love for William Burroughs . . . He loved Burroughs, loved J.G. Ballard, loved Brion Gysin, all the things I liked at the time . . . He had a great spirit, and an acceptance of anything that might happen.”
Reading was a way of exploring, of discovering, of connecting. Because he was scared of flying on planes, he traveled by ship. During one such voyage in 1972, he began to read Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. The novel was completed months before the 1929 stock market crash which caused the Great Depression and whose narrative ends in the near future with World War II under way. Bowie saw the correlation between the novel and his own times, so much so that he would write a song about it, “Aladdin Sane.” Like Waugh, it was Bowie’s way of writing an “epitaph for his own lost generation.
“Nobody reads anymore,” he once complained, “nobody goes out and looks and explores the society and culture they were brought up in. People have attention spans of five seconds and as much depth as a glass of water.”
Unlike those he was describing, Bowie was a voracious reader who was said to read a book a day. He loved reading because he was fascinated with ideas from art, culture, science and writing.
Even as a teenager, he would always carry a book with him to read while he was on traveling on the underground. Or he would buy one to keep in his pocket. At first he wanted to appear cool, so he would buy something by one of the French Existentialists, but then he actually began to read and love their works.
“When I’m relaxed what I do is read.” And he described a good week as one where he read “three or four books.”
When he went to Mexico to shoot the film The Man Who Fell To Earth, Bowie took with him 400 books, partly because he loved to read and partly because he was afraid someone might “nick” any of his beloved books. After that, he carried with him what he called his “travelling library” when he was on tour. “I had these cabinets – it was a travelling library – and they were rather like boxes that amplifiers get packed up in . . . because of that period, I have an extraordinarily good collection of books.”
He was a collector who delighted in collecting rare and first editions. He loved talking about books and about his favorite authors (he loved everything from the Beats to Stephen King to British authors like Julian Barnes to Russian writers like Mikhail Bulgakov). He would go on to compile a list of 100 titles that he recommended (Bowie’s Top 100 Books). The list contains everything from classics like The Iliad to more recent works like Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
Curator Geoffrey Marsh, who put together the touring exhibition David Bowie Is (it included 300 of Bowie’s personal objects, 75,000 costumes, his books and memorabilia) said, “The idea that he (Bowie) sits down and reads every book cover to cover, I don’t think that’s what he does. I think he’s more interested in ideas – and what he’s really interested in is how he can rework those ideas. He is the ultimate postmodernist, sampling stuff even before postmodernism arrived. I don’t think it’s a direct connection to him. It’s much more complicated.” Bowie, himself said, “The only art I’ll ever study is stuff that I can steal from.”
One can see how the works of Christopher Isherwood influenced Bowie’s Berlin period. George Orwell’s 1984 inspired Diamond Dogs. And it was his love of science fiction (from Michael Moorcock to Anthony Burgess to H.P. Lovecraft) that would form The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.
In an interview on NPR with Terry Gross, Bowie explained, “I think everything that I learned about stagecraft and carrying through – creating a through point for a theatrical device. I think Lindsay Kemp really introduced me to the work of Jean Genet, and through that, I kind of kept re-educating myself about other prose writers and poets. He instigated – he opened an awful lot of doors for me in terms of a new approach to what I could do. I could never have done what I did without being involved with Lindsay Kemp’s company.”
Whether it was watching movies or reading books, David Bowie would get lost in his own world within them and then translate them into his own art. And, while he preferred not to talk about himself, he would gladly talk about a great writer, such as the Japanese author Mishima (Bowie was in Tokyo when Mishima died) or Carl Jung’s The Red Book (according to the artist Tony Oursler, Bowie “was fascinated by Jung’s alternative view of channeling characters while making art”).
He would jokingly refer to himself as “a born librarian with a sex drive.” When filling out the Proust Questionnaire, he answered the question “What is the quality you most like in a man?” with “The ability to return books.”
For Bowie, reading was a way to keep that sense of creation, discovery and wonder. As he said, “Once you lose that sense of wonder at being alive, you’re pretty much on the way out…”
In the preface to his book David Bowie: A Life, Dylan Jones writes of attending a private dinner held by Sotheby’s in Bond Street for Bowie/Collector. As each of the invited guests sat down at the table to eat, they discovered a book was carefully placed before them. Each one received one of Bowie’s favorites (everything from Frank Norris’ McTeague to John Kennedy O’Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces).
Simon Hucker wrote in The Guardian that Bowie was attracted to writers and artists who were “often outsiders or cultural refugees trying to break from their own history,” just as Bowie did.