Curiosity, Obsessional Reading, and 400 Books, Just for Starters

Nicolas Roeg recently said that you were “very studious” and took a lot of books to the set of The Man Who Fell To Earth.

Oh God. But I had too many books. I took four hundred books down to that film shoot. I was dead scared of leaving them in New York because I was knocking around with some pretty dodgy people and I didn’t want any of them nicking my books.

–David Bowie interviewed by David Quantick for Q Magazine, Oct. 1999*

I’m always amused by the idea of Bowie packing up all his books in April 1975, boarding the train, traveling 2800 miles to LA, and then in June selecting 400 to take on the Southwest Limited with him to Albuquerque and other New Mexico locales for the several months he would be playing Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth.

I know I overpack books when vacation time comes around. There is always the hope that there will be more time to read than ever there is and the fear that I’ll be stranded with nothing to read.

bookcase2aStill, Bowie was, after all, working, not on vacation, and he had left those “dodgy” New Yorkers behind.

And 400 books — well, that’s quite a few. Here is what 250 look like. These are mostly paperbacks, too.

But when you take the train you can bring steamer trunks full of books, and you have time to read, think, and write. Refusing to fly gave Bowie this critical time during his years of intensive touring in the early 1970s to get on with his work and to continue educating himself.

Obsessional reading is not a disparaging phrase. It is the way one learns.

It Starts Early.

I get carried along on tides of enthusiasm. My whole life has been like that. If I’m introduced to something that fascinates me, within three hours I’m the world expert. — Bowie, 2000

On Bowie’s birthday, Flavorwire did a great photo tribute called Pictures of David Bowie Doing Normal Stuff.  This photo I found hilarious:

No, it’s not a gentleman-in-waiting and Village People wannabe seeking Bowie’s approval (and look at his amazing fingers, btw).  Here’s the story: When David was 13, his father bought a shortwave radio, and when David found the broadcasts of American football games by the US Armed Forces in Germany, he became obsessive about listening to every game. The next logical step, one any 13-year-old would take, was to write the US Navy HQ, London or the US Embassy (accounts vary) for information like magazines about the game. His letter must have been a hit in the office because he was invited to Grosvenor Square to watch football movies as Navy guys explained the plays, given a set of football gear that had been donated by a US Air Force base, and taken to a park to toss the ball around.

It Never Ends.

…try calling him an intellectual and he flinches.

“It’s not a term I apply to myself,” he says. “What I have is a malevolent curiosity. That’s what drives my need to write and what probably leads me to look at things a little askew. I do tend to take a different perspective from most people.”

— Bowie, interviewed by Jim Farber in 2002


The Bird Artist by Howard Norman. I’ve had it lying around for ages and I have just got around to reading it. Brilliant, wonderful moving stuff. Making the monumental statement from the small daily life. Great!!! I must now read everything he’s written.

— Bowie, journal entry 1999, Bowienet

 Maybe Not Quite 400, But…

In 2002 , Bowie opted to sail to Europe rather than fly, and described his cruising routine as including morning exercise:

. . . then in the afternoon I’ll just lounge around reading. I usually take an enormous number of books with me. I’m quite happy… I can read all day long and float between two or three books at the same time. And then I go down and choose which restaurant I’m going to have lunch in. I tend to ask for solo sitting, because I can take a book with me for lunch.

What a lovely way to travel, so many journeys in one.


*Bowie or interviewer David Quantick is a little confused. Bowie didn’t go directly from New York to New Mexico. He first took the train to LA, where he lived before and after the film shoot.

5 thoughts on “Curiosity, Obsessional Reading, and 400 Books, Just for Starters

  1. I like your blog in general! Always very interesting things to read about Bowie, and very thoughtful and perceptive. It is good to know that you seem to concern yourself very intensely with all those aspects of his art and personality. This is what I like doing, too.

    1. Thank you so much. It’s disappointing when new biographies (Trynka, Spitz) spend so much time on the very early band years, which has been covered over and over, and then once they get to the 90s or so are in a big rush to finish, ignoring so much of interest.

      1. You are so right! It really makes me sad when everything Bowie has accomplished in the 90s and later doesn’t get the appreciation it deserves in biographies, comments or the public opinion in general. For this reason there is one book on Bowie, although it is not a biography, which I like the best: the new “The Complete David Bowie” by Nicholas Pegg. This author does also the master’s later work justice and he doesn’t miss anything.

  2. I agree. I just got a copy of that this week, and am enjoying dipping into it. I also got Elizabeth Thomson and David Gutman’s Bowie Companion, 1996 — I’d love to see that one updated!

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