Brain Pickings

David Bowie’s 75 Must-Read Books

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From poetry to history to theory of mind, with plenty of fiction and a few magazines for good measure.

Creativity is a combinatorial force — it rests on our ability to fuse, usually unconsciously, existing concepts, memories, bits of information, pieces of knowledge, and fragmentary impression into novel ideas that we call our own. A mind of exceptional creativity, then, is a mind brimming with vibrantly diverse bits that can be fused together into a boundless array of possible combinations. One way to fully appreciate the power of such cross-disciplinary curiosity is to look at the intellectual diet of those we revere as geniuses, whatever their field of exceptional ability — take, for instance, the reading lists of Carl Sagan, Alan Turing, and Nick Cave.

Naturally, I was thrilled to come across the itemized intellectual diet of one of the most celebrated creative icons in modern history, David Bowie. A new retrospective of the artist’s work at the Art Gallery of Ontario features 75 of Bowie’s must-read books — a fascinating tour of his cross-disciplinary curiosity and the fuel for his combinatorial creativity. Although all but two of the books were published within Bowie’s lifetime — with the exceptions published within two years of his birth — he makes up for the presentism bias with an extraordinary diversity of disciplines, topics, and sensibilities, ranging from poetry to history to theory of mind, with plenty of fiction and a few magazines for good measure.

I was especially delighted to discover that Bowie too is fascinated by the routines, habits, and creative wisdom of great writers — among his favorite books is the vintage gem Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, First Series, which also gave us Malcolm Cowley’s theory of the four stages of writing, William Faulkner on literature and life, and the entrepreneurial story of how the Paris Review reinvented the art of the interview.

Here are Bowie’s booktrysts, in reverse chronological order:

  1. The Age of American Unreason (public library) by Susan Jacoby (2008)
  2. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (public library) by Junot Diaz (2007)
  3. The Coast of Utopia (trilogy) (public library) by Tom Stoppard (2007)
  4. Teenage: The Creation of Youth 1875–1945 (public library) by Jon Savage (2007)
  5. Fingersmith (public library) by Sarah Waters (2002)
  6. The Trial of Henry Kissinger (public library) by Christopher Hitchens (2001)
  7. Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder (public library) by Lawrence Weschler (1997)
  8. A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1890–1924 (public library) by Orlando Figes (1997)
  9. The Insult (public library) by Rupert Thomson (1996)
  10. Wonder Boys (public library) by Michael Chabon (1995)
  11. The Bird Artist (public library) by Howard Norman (1994)
  12. Kafka Was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir (public library) by Anatole Broyard (1993)
  13. Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective (public library) by Arthur C. Danto (1992)
  14. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (public library) by Camille Paglia (1990)
  15. David Bomberg (public library) by Richard Cork (1988)
  16. Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom (public library) by Peter Guralnick (1986)
  17. The Songlines (public library) by Bruce Chatwin (1986)
  18. Hawksmoor (public library) by Peter Ackroyd (1985)
  19. Nowhere to Run: The Story of Soul Music (public library) by Gerri Hirshey (1984)
  20. Nights at the Circus (public library) by Angela Carter (1984)
  21. Money (public library) by Martin Amis (1984)
  22. White Noise (public library) by Don DeLillo (1984)
  23. Flaubert’s Parrot (public library) by Julian Barnes (1984)
  24. The Life and Times of Little Richard (public library) by Charles White (1984)
  25. A People’s History of the United States (public library) by Howard Zinn (1980)
  26. A Confederacy of Dunces (public library) by John Kennedy Toole (1980)
  27. Interviews with Francis Bacon (public library) by David Sylvester (1980)
  28. Darkness at Noon (public library) by Arthur Koestler (1980)
  29. Earthly Powers (public library) by Anthony Burgess (1980)
  30. Raw, a “graphix magazine” (1980–1991)
  31. Viz, magazine (1979–)
  32. The Gnostic Gospels (public library) by Elaine Pagels (1979)
  33. Metropolitan Life (public library) by Fran Lebowitz (1978)
  34. In Between the Sheets (public library) by Ian McEwan (1978)
  35. Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews (public library) by ed Malcolm Cowley (1977)
  36. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (public library) by Julian Jaynes (1976)
  37. Tales of Beatnik Glory (public library) by Ed Saunders (1975)
  38. Mystery Train (public library) by Greil Marcus (1975)
  39. Selected Poems (public library) by Frank O’Hara (1974)
  40. Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s (public library) by Otto Friedrich (1972)
  41. In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Towards the Re-definition of Culture (public library) by George Steiner (1971)
  42. Octobriana and the Russian Underground (public library) by Peter Sadecky (1971)
  43. The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll (public library) by Charlie Gillett (1970)
  44. The Quest for Christa T (public library) by Christa Wolf (1968)
  45. Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age of Rock (public library) by Nik Cohn (1968)
  46. The Master and Margarita (public library) by Mikhail Bulgakov (1967)
  47. Journey into the Whirlwind (public library) by Eugenia Ginzburg (1967)
  48. Last Exit to Brooklyn (public library) by Hubert Selby Jr. (1966)
  49. In Cold Blood (public library) by Truman Capote (1965)
  50. City of Night (public library) by John Rechy (1965)
  51. Herzog (public library) by Saul Bellow (1964)
  52. Puckoon (public library) by Spike Milligan (1963)
  53. The American Way of Death (public library) by Jessica Mitford (1963)
  54. The Sailor Who Fell from Grace With the Sea (public library) by Yukio Mishima (1963)
  55. The Fire Next Time (public library) by James Baldwin (1963)
  56. A Clockwork Orange (public library) by Anthony Burgess (1962)
  57. Inside the Whale and Other Essays (public library) by George Orwell (1962)
  58. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (public library) by Muriel Spark (1961)
  59. Private Eye, magazine (1961–)
  60. On Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious (public library) by Douglas Harding (1961)
  61. Silence: Lectures and Writing (public library) by John Cage (1961)
  62. Strange People (public library) by Frank Edwards (1961)
  63. The Divided Self (public library) by R. D. Laing (1960)
  64. All the Emperor’s Horses (public library) by David Kidd (1960)
  65. Billy Liar (public library) by Keith Waterhouse (1959)
  66. The Leopard (public library) by Giuseppe di Lampedusa (1958)
  67. On the Road (public library) by Jack Kerouac (1957)
  68. The Hidden Persuaders (public library) by Vance Packard (1957)
  69. Room at the Top (public library) by John Braine (1957)
  70. A Grave for a Dolphin (public library) by Alberto Denti di Pirajno (1956)
  71. The Outsider (public library) by Colin Wilson (1956)
  72. Lolita (public library) by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)
  73. Nineteen Eighty-Four (public library) by George Orwell (1949)
  74. The Street (public library) by Ann Petry (1946)
  75. Black Boy (public library) by Richard Wright (1945)

Complement with the story of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona — you might find yourself tracing it back to a number of Bowie’s influences above.

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