A person's bookshelf will reveal everything you need to know about them. Discovering an individual's favourite books offers an insight into their thoughts, motivations and influences. My nostalgic reaction to David Bowie's death, therefore, wasn't to binge listen to his records. I didn't prepare popcorn and watch Labyrinth. Instead, I revisited an article from 2013, which listed Bowie's top 100 must-read books.
Bowie's favourite books reveal a great deal about his character and, indeed, his creative process. The list mentions obscure works that have become paradoxically mainstream -reminding us of Bowie. The choices are cultish, irreverent and brimming with heterodox. The theme of identity pervades throughout - utterly unsurprising, as the man in question perpetually toyed with the notion of identity, constantly reinventing himself in the process.
An obvious place to start - if only for Bowie's influence on the book's subject - is Jon Savage's Teenage: The Creation of Youth 1875-1945. This work explores youth subcultures across the world, building on Dick Hebdige's Subculture and the Meaning of Style. Teenage explores the various movements - political, cultural and social - that have attracted young people longing for an outlet. This sense of identifying with a movement is a pivotal theme in Bowie's list of books - particularly his fictional choices.
For example, On the Road - the seminal work of the Beatnik subculture - explores one man's attempt to find something inviolable in an otherwise vapid America. Richard Wright's Black Boy examines themes of racial identity - exploring Wright's eventual move towards the American Communist Party. These works concern personal identity and the individual's move towards a collective cultural and political home. This notion of identity clearly influenced Bowie and Bowie, in turn, influenced the notion of identity.
Bowie chooses historical works that challenge the status quo. This, again, seems typical of Bowie - an artist constantly questioning the mainstream. In A People's History of the United States, for example, Howard Zinn essentially rewrites American history from the viewpoint of working people. Zinn destroys popular historical myths - beginning with a scathing condemnation of Christopher Columbus - and offers an entirely different perspective from mainstream historical thought. Similarly, Christopher Hitchens' The Trial of Henry Kissinger is a polemical work that questions the popular understanding of Kissinger, an American Nobel Prize winner. Hitchens unyieldingly attacks Kissinger, citing his brutality and his hunger for war. These books changed history or, rather, gave us a more accurate, less apologetic version of history. Like Bowie, Zinn and Hitchens were unforgiving and uncompromising.
Among Bowie's other choices are great and challenging novels that have seeped into the mainstream despite the mainstream. Nabokov's Lolita, for example, takes its place on Bowie's bookshelf. One can imagine Bowie, as uncomfortable as any reader of Lolita, perusing the explicit, perverse fantasies of Humbert Humbert. George Orwell is one of the few authors to feature twice on Bowie's list. 1984, of course, makes the cut, but Bowie also lists Orwell's essays. Any fan of Orwell will rejoice in this inclusion, as his essays are arguably his greatest works - particularly, for me, The Lion and the Unicorn, Books v Cigarettes and Inside the Whale. Mikhail Bulgakaov's The Master and Margarita and Saul Bellow's Herzog also make the list. These works were accepted by the literary mainstream despite their rejection of the mainstream. Their success, therefore, somewhat resembles the success of Bowie.
I haven't read all the books on Bowie's list - luckily there is plenty more for me to learn - but those I've read seem to represent the man. The list includes books that deal with a sense of belonging and notions of identity. The non-fiction, and indeed some of the fiction, challenges dominant, hegemonic perceptions and invites us to look at the world in new ways. The books are innovative, challenging and beautiful. They are uncompromising and refuse to kowtow to popular constructs, structures or ideas. They are mainstream precisely because they rejected the mainstream. They are brutal and authentic, honest and brave. Perhaps most importantly, and in this sense they resemble Bowie most of all, the books on this list are scathingly original.
I'll leave you with a quote from Frank O' Hara, the only writer whose selected poems made the list. On the day following David Bowie's death, this quote seems appropriate and perhaps best sums up the man: 'Grace to be born and live as variously as possible'.