Love David Bowie? Join this club
On 26 December, British film-maker Duncan Jones put out a public call on Twitter to honour the memory of his superstar father, David Bowie. Curiously, his message had little do with music, where Bowie has left an immortal mark.
Starting February, Jones said, he would kick off a book club on the social networking site, where users can discuss each of the 100 books that held a special place in the iconic musician’s heart. Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor (1985), which delves into the murky alleys of English history, will flag off this “literary marathon”.
His gesture is rivaled only by a party in 2016. On 31 October that year, Dylan Jones writes in David Bowie: A Life, at an exclusive dinner for 100 guests in London, organized by Sotheby’s to exhibit the late musician’s art collection, each of the invitees found themselves seated before one of Bowie’s 100 favourite books. It wasn’t clear if these pairings were deliberate. Artist Tracey Emin was bemused to find a copy of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy Of Dunces before her, while the then chairman of HSBC got Madame Bovary.
A Twitter book club would have appealed to Bowie’s impish sense of humour and lifelong bibliophilia. Long before his death from cancer at the age of 69, on 10 January 2016, he was famous for his obsession with books. “My father was a beast of a reader,” as Jones put it.
Perhaps the most preposterous manifestation of Bowie’s book love was the gigantic cabinet he travelled with, stuffed with 400 volumes, to the shoot of Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976) in New Mexico. He couldn’t trust his precious cargo to the care of his “dodgy” housemates, Bowie said. Three decades too early, he had out-Kindled the Kindle.
In 1987, Bowie lent himself to a promotional poster of the American Library Association. Pouting, eyes fixed on an open volume of The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, he seems ready to plunge into the book. His pose wasn’t really an affectation.
Born to middle-class parents in 1947 as David Robert Jones, Bowie (who named himself after an infamous knife) dropped out of London’s Bromley Technical High School at 15. It is said his early exposure to Jack Kerouac’s On The Road and Allen Ginsberg’s poetry were to blame for his disenchantment with institutional learning.
Although he left with only one O-level (in art), Bowie immersed himself in reading with the same self-consuming brilliance with which he poured his energies into music. The successive personae he invented for himself—Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Thin White Duke—were as much figments of his inspired imagination as drawn from the world of books.
From the anti-hero of Albert Camus’ The Outsider to androgyny in Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae, literary tropes seep into Bowie’s music seamlessly. In 1973, he began a musical translation of George Orwell’s 1984, a project which never saw the light of day due to copyright problems. Bowie’s restless peregrinations between different styles (contrast the punk-heavy chords of his early album Space Oddity with the funereal grooves of his grand finale, Blackstar) and his cultural code-switching were as passionate as a novelist’s narrative experiments.
“For me, rock was always about narration or putting forward little stories and ideas, however strange or off the wall they might be,” he said. If this remark reminds you of a writer of sci-fi or fantasy, now you know why you shouldn’t be surprised.