February 12, 2019  

David Bowie once recounted a story from the filming of The Man Who Fell to Earth in 1975. Relocating from Los Angeles to New Mexico for the shoot, he brought hundreds upon hundreds of books with him, a “traveling library” that he ported in cases large enough to hold an amplifier. His director, Nicolas Roeg, seeing Bowie sifting through piles of books, told him that “your great problem, David, is that you don’t read enough.” Bowie said he didn’t realize for months that Roeg was joking. Instead he berated himself, asking “What else should I read?”

Not the typical 1970s rock star anecdote. Throughout his life, Bowie was a colossal bibliophile, with books as the one habit he never relinquished. When he wasn’t recording or touring, he appears to have spent much of his days reading. Late in life, he was a regular sighting at his local bookstore, McNally Jackson in Soho, and a photograph taken of him in 2013 parallels his Man Who Fell to Earth story. Again, Bowie’s sitting on the floor surrounded by stacks of his books, here including Geeta Dayal’s Another Green World and Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled.

Many rock songs have been hatched from books: “Sympathy for the Devil” (Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita); Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights”; the Mekons’ “Only Darkness Has the Power” (Paul Auster’s The Locked Room) and so forth. But Bowie’s catalog is particularly rife with songs indebted to fiction and nonfiction, to short stories and (laughing) gnomic philosophical treatises. He even wrote lyrics via a literary device—William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin-style cut-up, where he’d scissor up a page from, say, a novel that he was reading and use randomly-selected text strips to kick-start a verse. (By the 1990s, he had software do the grunt work for him.)

It’s telling that among Bowie’s final public statements was a list of his Top 100 books, offered as part of the David Bowie Is museum exhibit. As Bowie has apparently left no memoir behind, the closest that he ventured to autobiography is this list of books. Some he chose because he wanted his fans to read them, but many selections have a deeper resonance in his work.<