We all love a good list. To-do lists, lists of meals in mugs, lists of topless men, lists of cats being cute, or grumpy, or judgemental. Lists of topless men being cute with cats in mugs. Go on, admit it – there have been one too many nights when your pressing work schedule has slipped into the Buzzfeed endless scroll. We live in a chaotic world of government shutdowns, tuition fee rises and Daily Mail headlines; sometimes it’s nice to have things broken down into a neat, digestible order. And now there’s a new list to peruse, one that has already drawn the eyes and opinions of many commentators, one that may carry more intellectual and artistic merit than the average animal based inventory. David Bowie has revealed his 100 favourite books.
The charismatic, talented, mysterious, personality-shifting Starman is offering us mere mortals a glimpse into his cosmos. Already newspaper columns and websites are abuzz with readings into what Bowie’s readings reveal. For fans like The Guardian’s Suzanne Moore, this is a reading list that should be rushed into every school, a new source of inspiration from “this bringer of joy”. All are treating this information as a fascinating insight into the mind of this supreme cultural icon – a way to finish the title of the Bowie exhibition this list relates to: ‘David Bowie Is’…?
Well, he’s very well read. Ranging from R.D Laing to Nabokov, from Orwell to Kerouac to Sarah Waters this is a list heavy with authorial heavyweights (with the comic Viz thrown in to throw us) and with narratives of outsider oddities. Fiction is balanced by books on artistic image, creativity and psychology.
So he’s interested in the self, the mind, the personality and how all of these can split. Really? The man who was both David Bowie and Ziggy Stardust? The Thin White Duke who sometimes sang soul and sometimes played synths? The man who decided that the name ‘David Jones’ didn’t accurately reflect the depths and facets of his character – or at least wasn’t going to be acknowledged to publicly – he’s interested in madness and consciousness and schizophrenic tendencies? Well knock me over, because I didn’t see that coming.
Why are we so interested in what a musician – admittedly a supremely talented, creative and iconic musician – has stacked on his bedside table? Because we crave definitions and we know that what we read defines us.
What we read, especially what we value reading, is vital to how we see the world; books shape us and our understandings of our surroundings. They reflect us. We all form opinions on people by the book they deem their favourite, or by what they’re clutching under their arm – the girl leafing through 50 Shades Of Grey on the tube must be different from her neighbour, deep in War and Peace. The title poking out of a handbag says more about the carrier than its Mulberry / Primark label – we’ve gained a sneak peek into the owner’s mind, not just their wallet. This ordering is why we love lists after all; things, and people, are put in neat little boxes.
And David Bowie (or Davy Jones, or Ziggy, or whatever) knows this. Because no matter what guise he is taking, he is always the man who, as a teenager, tucked Albert Camus novels into his pockets on the Underground, purposefully, so others could see. He most certainly has read number 76 on his list, ‘The Stranger’, now, but back then the French existentialist’s ideas were unread – known only to denote intellect, culture and the ‘deepness’ hipsters of every age seek. Books, and what other people read into them, were the first props in David’s lifelong role-play.
We want to understand, categorise, peek into Bowie’s fascinating mind – we want to know who ‘David Bowie Is’. David Bowie is what? But perhaps this cannot be smoothly answered – perhaps its not meant to be. Read all 100 – it’s an incredible selection – but don’t expect Bowie’s secrets to be revealed. This is as much a construct as the name Bowie itself is. Who knows what / who David Bowie is, but isn’t it enough that he is, full stop?