When David Bowie released his favorite books, he did something he rarely did: he revealed himself.
Bowie is important to me. My first concert was the Station to Station tour in 1976. One of the first albums, a cassette, I ever purchased was Diamond Dogs. I didn’t realize at the time that Bowie had been attempting to acquire the rights to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eight-Four, so he could create a rock opera of sorts based on Orwell’s great dystopian masterpiece. The Orwell Estate was not going to allow Bowie the rights, so Bowie pivoted and created Diamond Dogs, his own dystopian vision set in the bleak Hunger City where jackals feasted on corpses. The album still plays tribute to Nineteen Eight-Four with songs such as “We are the Dead,” “Big Brother,” and “Nineteen Eight-Four.”
I’m surprised that neither the sci-fi classic The Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Tevis nor Christiane F. Wir Kinder Vom Bahnhof Zoo by Christiane Vera Felscherinow, the story of a young German girl becoming hooked on heroin to bond with the boy who she was in love with did not make Bowie’s top 100. Both books are now cult films that are still relevant today and loom large in Bowie’s legend; it was Bowie songs, mainly from his Berlin Trilogy, on the Christiane F. soundrack, and he made a cameo appearance in the film. He starred, of course, in the memorable The Man Who Fell to Earth film directed by Nicolas Roeg.
I’ve read 30 books on Bowie’s list, which is why I write about certain books and categories more than others.
To try and understand David Bowie’s favorite books, I broke them into categories based on British Fiction, American Fiction, Cold War / Berlin, Art, Music, Comics, The Black Experience, Eclectic, Nonfiction, and more. Most of the books in Bowie’s list are British or American. Eighty-seven of the books were written by men, thirteen by women.
Bowie’s favorite British literature includes Clockwork Orange’s young criminals and redemption, Hawksmoor’s two hundred and fifty year old murder, Amis’s Money, a tale of life lived without restraint, Orwell’s dystopian classic that remains a best seller, Fingersmith’s love of two women in the slums of London, Lady Chatterley’s Lover‘s tale of a staid marriage and the wife’s passionate love affair, Vile Bodies glittering lives and the darkness beneath them, Flaubert’s Parrot’s secrets slowly revealed, In Between The Sheets’s transcripts of dreams, Billy Liar’s daydreams are the only hope, Room at the Top’s an ‘angry young man’ of the fifties, and The Insult‘s protagonist who has gone blind. My favorite is Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, featuring Miss Brodie’s creative, beautiful, and dangerous belief in herself.
Common themes in Bowie’s British fiction are outsider stories, dark tales. people attempting to break out of their oppressed surrounding, and lives lived without moderation. These British novels are creative, out-of-the box, and deeply felt.
- A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
- Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd
- Money by Martin Amis
- Nineteen Eight-Four by George Orwell
- Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
- Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence
- Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
- Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes
- In Between The Sheets by Ian McEwan
- Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse
- Room At The Top by John Braine
- Puckoon by Spike Milligan
- The Insult by Rupert Thomson 1966
- The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
- Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess
- The Coast of Utopia by Tom Stoppard (Czech born)
- Zanoni by Edward Bulwer-Lytton
Bowie’s favorite American fiction includes The Great Gatsby. Jay Gatsby would appeal to Bowie. He was a man who created his own charismatic persona. Gatsby also defined roaring twenties style and was a man who came from nowhere to pursue his dreams. McTeague by Frank Norris is interesting because it’s somewhat of a socialist novel. Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter’s protagonist is part woman, part swan. I think that says it all. City of Night by John Rechy is classic gay literature. Herzog is a man who is falling apart, but as he does, he discovers himself. White Noise by Don Delillo illuminates American’s consumer culture. Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon is one of the most entertaining reads on the list.
I’m not surprised to see On the Road by Kerouac on the list; Bowie’s half-brother Terry turned him on to Kerouac when he was a teen. A slew of darker tales that are uniquely American are among Bowie’s favorite American fiction: The Bridge by Hart Crain, The 42nd Parallel by John Dos Passos, As I lay Dying by William Falkner, Tales of Beatnik Glory by Ed Sanders, and The Day of The Locust by Nathanael West.
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- McTeague by Frank Norris
- Nights At the Circus by Angela Carter
- City Of Night by John Rechy
- Herzog by Saul Bellow
- White Noise by Don DeLillo
- Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon
- Last Exit To Brooklyn By Hubert Selby, Jr.
- The Bridge by Hart Crane
- The 42nd Parallel by John Dos Passos
- On The Road by Jack Kerouac
- As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
- A Confederacy Of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
- The Day of The Locust by Nathanael West
- Tales of Beatnik Glory by Ed Sanders
- The Bird Artist by Howard Norman
More David Bowie’s Favorite Fiction
Bowie includes 10 non-British and non-American novels. I’m a fan of The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, a classic and creative Russian novel that features the devil going to Moscow. The Sailor Who Fell from Grace With The Sea by Yukio Mishima is a story with characters you will not forget. It will make you say “Wow” several times, and the prose is beautiful.
- Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
- The Stranger by Albert Camus
- Maldoror by Comte de Lautréamont (French, but born in Uruguay)
- The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
- Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
- The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with The Sea by Yukio Mishima
- Iliad by Homer
- Inferno by Dante Alighieri
Dominican Republic Fiction
- The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
- The Leopard by Giusseppe Di Lampedusa
- A Grave for A Dolphin by Alberto Denti di Pirajno
Cold War and Berlin Books
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.
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 opposition 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 convicted of treason by the same revolutionary forces he once supported.
When David Bowie died in 2016, the German Foreign Office tweeted, “Good-bye, David Bowie. You are now among #Heroes. Thank you for helping to bring down the #wall.”
You might enjoy the essay “Bowie and the Berlin Wall.” Read a sample here.
- Darkness At Noon by Arthur Koestler
- Before The Deluge by Otto Friedrich
- Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin
- The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf
- Octobriana And the Russian Underground by Peter Sadecky
- A People’s Tragedy by Orlando Figes
- Journey Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg
- Mr. Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood
Read more about David Bowie’s time in Berlin and his impact on the Wall falling here.
The Black Experience
Bowie was an outspoken anti-racist 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.
- Black Boy by Richard Wright
- The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
- The Street by Ann Petry
- Infants Of The Spring by Wallace Thurman
- Passing by Nella Larson
David Bowie’s Favorite Art, Music, Eclectic, Poetry, Comics, and Nonfiction Books.
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. It’s interesting to see what he leaves out as well. There are few or no biographies, letters, thrillers, diaries, journals, mysteries on his list.
When Bowie was a boy, he loved Little Richard, who became his musical hero, so it makes sense that The Life And Times Of Little Richard by Charles White and Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age of Rock by Nik Cohn are two of his favorite music books. Bowie includes Mystery Train by Greil Marcus, which is about the rise of Elvis Presley, who Bowie shares a birthday with and admires.
Bowie love of art is represented by a handful of interesting art books.
Bowie claimed to be nonpolitical, but he includes several political books: A People’s History Of The United States by Howard Zinn and The Trial Of Henry Kissinger by Christopher Hitchens.
George Orwell is the only writer with two books on the list—Nineteen Eight-Four and Inside the Whale and Other Essays. A magnificent essayist, Orwell is at his best in “Inside the Whale” that dissects Henry Miller’s writing as well as literary fashions going back to the 1920s.
Bowie’s list includes a variety of eclectic and nonfiction books that illuminate Bowie’s book choices.
- The Life And Times Of Little Richard by Charles White
- Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age of Rock by Nik Cohn
- Mystery Train by Greil Marcus
- Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm And Blues And The Southern Dream Of Freedom by Peter Guralnick
- Silence: Lectures And Writing by John Cage
- The Sound Of The City: The Rise Of Rock And Roll by Charlie Gillete
- Nowhere To Run The Story Of Soul Music by Gerri Hirshey
- Beyond The Brillo Box by Arthur C. Danto
- Sexual Personae: Art And Decadence From Nefertiti To Emily Dickinson by Camille Paglia
- Writers At Work: The Paris Review Interviews edited by Malcolm Cowley
- Interviews With Francis Bacon by David Sylvester
- Transcendental Magic, Its Doctrine and Ritual by Eliphas Lévi
- David Bomberg by Richard Cork
- Blast by Wyndham Lewis
- The Origin Of Consciousness In The Breakdown Of The Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes
- In Bluebeard’s Castle by George Steiner
- The Divided Self by R. D. Laing
- Transcendental Magic, Its Doctrine and Ritual by Eliphas Lévi
- On Having No Head by Douglass Harding
- Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder by Lawrence Weschler
- The Waste Land by T.S. Elliot
- Selected Poems by Frank O’Hara
Bowie’s Comic Books
- Beano (comic, ’50s)
- Raw (comic, ’80s)
- Viz (comic, early ’80s)
- Private Eye (satirical magazine, ’60s – ’80s)
- A People’s History Of The United States by Howard Zinn
- The Age Of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby
- Metropolitan Life by Fran Lebowitz
- In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
- The American Way Of Death by Jessica Mitford
- The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels
- Halls Dictionary Of Subjects And Symbols In Art by James A. Hall
- The Trial Of Henry Kissinger by Christopher Hitchens
- Inside The Whale And Other Essays by George Orwell
- The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin
- Kafka Was The Rage by Anatole Broyard
- The Outsider by Colin Wilson
- All The Emperor’s Horses by David Kidd
- Teenage by Jon Savage
- The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard
- English Journey by J.B. Priestley
We hope you enjoyed our interpretations and categorization of David Bowie’s favorite books.
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