David Bowie’s Book Recommendations — As If His Music, Acting, and Nonconformity Weren’t Gifts Enough

I haven’t been able to think far beyond grief today, but one thing struck me as I attempted to get some work done on the internet: everyone’s Bowie is so different. Each person posting a tribute or a lyric or a video has their own Bowie, and that alone became another huge weight as I thought about it. How cool is that, that one human could encompass so many different lives? And inspire (and save) so many people?

One of the tributes I saw was a list of Bowie’s 100 Favorite Books. I thought that would be a good thing to share today, since in addition to every other gift he gave us, he gave us literally months of reading suggestions. And when you look at the list, the thing that stands out is an astonishing diversity of genre!

David Bowie, who once described his perfect idea of happiness as “reading”, included lots of fiction in his list of 100 favorite books, and featured everything from Nella Larsen’s Passing to Yukio Mishima’s The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea to Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita. Even more interesting to me were the non-fiction books that show a mind on a constant quest for knowledge from every corner of human inquiry.

The list also features multiple books on the history of rock music, but even here the choices are telling. While The Sound Of The City: The Rise Of Rock And Roll by Charlie Gillete looks at rock’n’roll as whole, he also recommended histories with a particular social perspective. Charles White’s The Life And Times Of Little Richard is a widely-acclaimed take on the life of Bowie’s predecessor in genderfuckery. And Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm And Blues And The Southern Dream Of Freedom outlines the way Southern Soul infused the Civil Right movement.

Two choices that jumped out at me among all the fiction were the two psychology book Bowie included. The Origin Of Consciousness In The Breakdown Of The Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes explores the (pretty much debunked) idea that up until a few thousand years ago, humans had a divided consciousness, one part that acts largely by habit, and the other part that “speaks” new ideas and problem solving techniques. Jaynes used a variety of different ancient texts to trace the theory, showing that people’s thought and writing processes changed at consciousness became more unified. Even if it isn’t accurate, it’s an interesting way to look at the human mind and creativity. The Divided Self by R. D. Laing also looks at psychosis and schizophrenia, but Laing attempts to catalogue the process of “going mad” using existential philosophy. Both of these books interrogate the very concept of selfhood, especially appropriate for someone who cycled through an infinite number of selves.

Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels, which reconstructs the history of an unorthodox mystical sect who wrote during the first heady centuries of Christianity, gives an alternate look at the early Christian movement before it became fully codified. Pagels’ narrative emphasizes the idea that many different voices contributed to what eventually became Christianity, and shaped the ideas that, in turn shaped Western civilization. Finally, Hall’s Dictionary Of Subjects And Symbols In Art digs into classic works to find the meaning buried within them…. which just might have been useful to an idiom working in America and Canada. Head over to Electric Literature for the full list of 100 books, and add some glam to your TBR stack.

Top Image from the American Library Association’s READ Campaign, 1987.

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