What do we really know about David Bowie, chameleon, comedian, corinthian and caricature? The resounding response to his sudden death has been overpowering. What’s more, Bowie’s ability to keep his ill health a complete secret while laying it on a plate for us in his last release confirms The Thin White Duke as one of art’s great schemers and manipulators (if we didn’t know that already).
A mime artist in his early career and then the vessel for some of rock’s greatest characters, the theatrical facades gave us little to go on. Always ahead of the game and devilishly contrary, Bowie was one of pop’s earliest adopters of the Internet (remember BowieBanc?) when others were shaking their heads and asking what it was for, and yet in the intervening years revealing all became the way stars maintained our interest while he gave us years of silence. And how dignified that silence was.
In late 2013 Bowie gave us perhaps the most tantalising glimpse yet into his psyche, beyond the music of course. David Bowie Is curator Geoffrey Marsh – chose 300 items from Bowie’s personal archive for the exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario – picked out a hundred of the artist’s favourite reads, and a cursory glance at the list reveals immediately that Bowie – or David Jones, the man behind Bowie – had excellent taste in books. If you can’t judge a book by its cover, then you can certainly judge a person by the tomes that reside among their bookshelves, a practice we’ve all been guilty of at one time or another. A quick peek at Mr Bowie’s collection reveals an intimidating mind, with a multitude of interests that include politics, music, history, art, comedy, architecture, sociology, poetry, fiction and so on.
The list is surprisingly modern, with some heavyweight contemporary thinkers, the dissident feminist Camille Paglia makes the cut, as does the late, great left-wing firebrand Christopher Hitchens. Angela Carter’s Nights At The Circus is also present, Susan Jacoby as well, and these various inclusions might just give us an inkling into his political leanings. The oldest book is Richard Wright’s Black Boy, published in 1955, meaning everything here was released during the singer’s lifetime. The modernity suggests a voracious appetite for contemporary life and curator Marsh claims Bowie often read ‘a book a day’.
The great American novel is well-represented and no doubt well-thumbed, from Kerouac’s stream of consciousness masterpiece On the Road, through Truman Capote and Saul Bellow, to the comi-tragedy of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao about a Dominican boy growing up in New Jersey. It’s clear Bowie often identified with a strong and flawed central figure, as these books attest. Humbert Humbert of Nabokov’s Lolita and John Self from Martin Amis’ Money are two such antiheroes.
Bowie loved comedy, and the 1979 copy of Viz reveals he was a reader before pretty much everyone else. There’s also a copy of Private Eye from 1961, and comedy genius’ Spike Milligan’s farcical Puckoon. You want dark fantasy? Russian novelist Bulgakov’s The Master And Margarita is an incredible feat of the imagination worthy of the man who invented Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke. And speaking of duality, sociologist R.D Laing’s study of insanity, The Divided Self, appears, as does psychologist Julian Jaynes’s The Origin Of Consciousness In The Breakdown Of The Bicameral Mind. Interestingly there are two Anthony Burgess novels, including A Clockwork Orange, and two George Orwells, with 1984 being the least surprising on the list if you’ve got a copy of Diamond Dogs.
Pretty much every book is an eyecatcher, and despite the weighty subject matter, these are books where the words jump off the page and startle the imagination. As cult movie director John Waters once said: “If you go home with somebody and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them.” By that rationale, Bowie would’ve definitely got it.