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Word on a wing – ‘Bowie’s Bookshelf’

December 3, 2019
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Confession time: I assume that I can determine what kind of person you are by looking at your bookshelf. It’s true. I will walk into your house for the first time, seek out any and all bookshelves (within socially acceptable parameters, of course) and make sweeping generalizations about who you are.

Anyone who spends serious time with books believes that much can be gleaned about a person by the books with which they choose to surround themselves. We are what we read. That’s true of us regular folks, but it’s also true of the creative giants who walk among us. Much can be learned about the artist through the art they consume.

Artists like the late David Bowie.

Veteran music journalist John O’Connell has written a book that grants us the next best thing to poking around Bowie’s personal library. “Bowie’s Bookshelf: The Hundred Books that Changed David Bowie’s Life" (Gallery, $18) offers up snapshot looks at the literary works that most inspired Bowie, from his early days through the end of his life. Through brief essays, O’Connell builds some connective tissue between the artist and the books on this list.

As for the list itself? It springs from a retrospective exhibit on Bowie from back in 2013. Titled “David Bowie Is,” it was an extensive look back on Bowie’s career. As part of that exhibit, curator Geoffrey Marsh included a list of Bowie’s 100 favorite books.

Bowie was a legendary reader, so it only stood to reason that he would have a thorough and eclectic collection of favorites. From the list sprang an informal online David Bowie Book Club, started by Bowie’s son, the filmmaker Duncan Jones.

O’Connell’s book goes through each of these titles one by one, offering up some general insights on the works while also delving into thoughts on just why they might have made it onto this list.

And make no mistake – it is a vast and varied selection. Bowie’s literary tastes clearly ranged toward the omnivorous, with works from all manner of genre making appearances. The list leans a bit toward fiction, but there’s plenty of nonfiction there as well. There’s a good deal of affection for American authors, but there are also a lot of writings from Bowie’s UK countrymen. He ventures farther afield as well.

Obviously, working through the whole list makes little sense, but it might be fun to point out a few highlights and maybe a surprise or two.

There’s plenty of “classic” literature here. Titles like Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” and Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” and Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying.” Thoughtful treatises like “Hall’s Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art” and “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.” Esoteric stuff like Eliphas Levi’s “Transcendental Magic, Its Doctrine and Ritual” and “The Gnostic Gospels” by Elaine Pagels.

“A Confederacy of Dunces.” “In Cold Blood.” “On the Road.” “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” “A Clockwork Orange” and “1984” (Orwell appears twice – his “Inside the Whale and Other Essays” is also on the list). Nabokov and Chabon and Camus and DeLillo.

Not to mention epic poetry and comic strips and music biographies. And so on and so forth.

It should be noted that none of these essays are long enough to delve particularly deeply into any of these works. In many ways, it works best as an introduction to the books that somehow, someway impacted the life and art of David Bowie. Perhaps some significant philosophy or aesthetic was derived from a work; perhaps it was simply a story that engaged and compelled him in some small way. Whatever the reasoning, the connection was significant enough to warrant inclusion on a list such as this one – no small honor when bestowed by such a devoted bibliophile.

O’Connell looks for ways to connect the dots, mining the books and Bowie’s life and career to find the places where the pieces lock together. Some of those connections are clearer with others; the subtler ones don’t always click in the same fashion as the more obvious choices. Regardless, it’s a wonderful and idiosyncratic way to get some insight into what made Bowie tick.

“Bowie’s Bookshelf” might not be physically present, but this book offers the chance for us to poke around anyway, to look at his shelves and judge their content. For whatever it’s worth, it’s the selection of a reader with whom I share many similar (and a few very different) tastes.

You can learn some things from a bookshelf. And you can learn some things from “Bowie’s Bookshelf.”

“The only art I’ll ever study is the stuff that I can steal from.” – David Bowie

Last modified on Thursday, 05 December 2019 15:31

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