David Bowie’s Favorite Books about Berlin, the Cold War, and Politics

Bowie and the Berlin Wall

I’ve been a Bowie fan a long time. Diamond Dogs was the first album I ever bought in 1974. I listened to it hundreds of times on my little cassette player. The Station to Station concert at the Forum in Los Angeles in 1976 was my first.

I followed Bowie to Berlin in the late 1970s through his albums Low, “Heroes,” and Lodger—which are referred to as the “Berlin Trilogy.” Bowie considered them his musical DNA. One of my favorites films is 1981’s Christiane F., which was based in Berlin and is now considered an essential film in German cinema. Bowie’s involvement was a memorable Berlin artistic achievement for him.

In 2020, I began writing the essay “Bowie and the Berlin Wall,” which is now part of my story collection The Mysteries of Game Theory and Other Oddities. One of my favorite parts about researching David’s life was learning how passionate he was about books and reading.

Below is an excerpt from “Bowie and the Berlin Wall” focused on Bowie’s favorite books about Berlin, the Cold War, politics, and disenfranchised people.

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In 2013 Bowie gave the “David Bowie Is” exhibit curators almost complete access to his archives. Victoria and Albert Museum director Geoffrey Marsh said he’d heard Bowie read a book a day. Bowie’s son, Duncan, said that his father was a “beast of a reader.” Bowie brought four hundred books with him to New Mexico during the filming of The Man Who Fell to Earth.

The exhibit released a list of his favorite hundred titles, and with the list, Bowie did something he rarely did: he revealed himself.

More than a few of his favorite reads were related to Berlin, the Cold War, politics, and disenfranchised people. Two books were written by the ultimate Cold War writer George Orwell, who battled fascism, communism, and imperialism. Nineteen Eighty-Four, the timeless dystopian novel, is based on Orwell’s experiences in the Spanish Civil War and what he witnessed in the 1930s and 1940s. The themes of the totalitarian nightmare of control and conformity, and one man’s struggle to be free, had a deep impact on Bowie, and in 1973–1974 he attempted to gain the rights to turn Nineteen Eighty-Four into a musical. When the Orwell estate refused to grant him the rights, he came out with the Orwell-themed Diamond Dogs album, which included the songs “1984,” “Big Brother,” and “We Are the Dead.”

Inside the Whale and Other Essays contains the first sign that Orwell would become Orwell with the essay “Shooting an Elephant.” It is a metaphor for imperialism written while Orwell was a police officer in Burma. In another essay in the collection, “Politics and the English Language” (1962), Orwell writes that political language “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Four of Bowie’s favorite books were set in Berlin, three of them dealing with pre-Nazi Germany: Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin, Mr. Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood, and Before the Deluge by Otto Friedrich. These disparate, brilliant reads evoke a sense of Berlin before the onslaught of the Nazi madness.

Bowie became friends with Isherwood in Los Angeles, and it was Isherwood who influenced his decision to move to Berlin. Bowie lived near where Isherwood had lived in Berlin in 1929­–1933 during the last days of the Weimar Republic.

Another Bowie favorite, The Quest for Christa T. by East German writer Christa Wolf, is a fluid, experimental narrative about the mysterious life of an East German woman and what happens to the human spirit in a totalitarian state. Christa T. strives to be honest at a time when survival in East Germany requires deception. The book was a sensation on its release in 1968, but it was soon condemned in East Germany. Later Christa Wolf was a speaker at the Alexanderplatz demonstration in East Berlin five days before the Wall fell.

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Four books on Bowie’s list were about struggles for freedom and from oppression in the Soviet Union and Russia. Octobriana and the Russian Underground by Petr Sadecký, tells of a comic book heroine who becomes superhuman in a radioactive volcano and leads the Soviet underground’s resistance against Russian and American hegemony. Released in 1971 and only available in illegal magazines at the time, it was important to a generation of young Russian dissenters. A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution: 1891–1924 by British historian Orlando Figes,is a thousand-page tome on the Russian Revolution. Journey into the Whirlwind by Russian author Eugenia Ginzburg, documents her eighteen-year imprisonment in the Soviet Gulag after she was caught up in Stalin’s purges in the 1930s. Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler, is the chilling portrait of an aging Bolshevik tried for treason by the same revolutionary forces he once supported.

Bowie also listed nonfiction books related to American politics, including The Trial of Henry Kissinger by Christopher Hitchens, who makes the case for Kissinger’s crimes of sanctioned murder, genocide, and more when he was the secretary of state in the Nixon administration. A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, chronicles the history of the United States through the perspective of marginalized people, including workers, women, Black Americans, and Native peoples.

Bowie was an outspoken antiracist in his words and deeds. He famously called out MTV for not playing videos by Black artists—and his support of and interest in the Black experience was reflected in his favorite books. The titles include Passing by Nella Larsen, Black Boy by Richard Wright, The Street by Ann Petry, Infants of the Spring by Wallace Thurman, and The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin.

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Bowie’s love for literature and books is another legacy he leaves behind that breaks down Walls and opens doors for those who want to enter his literary world.

Read more about Joseph Raffetto’s books on Goodreads.

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Joseph Raffetto

Joseph Raffetto earned a B.A. in Comparative Literature from San Diego State University. He can be found online @noovella on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and Goodreads. His books are available on all online booksellers.