What’s on Bowie’s Bookshelves?

Note: In September 2013, a list of Bowie’s favorite 100 books appeared in connection with the exhibition David Bowie Is. It popped up again after his death, for example under the byline Martin Chilton in the Telegraph. Oddly, it was most often repeated containing just 75. Both lists are later than mine.

In From Time Out, August 23-30 1995:

“As a teenager I was fairly traditional in what I read: pompously Nietzsche, and not so pompously Jack Kerouac. And Burroughs. These ‘outside’ people were really the people I wanted to be like. Burroughs, particularly. I derived so much satisfaction from the way he would scramble life, and it no longer felt scrambled reading him. I thought, ‘God, it feels like this, that sense of urgency and danger in everything that you do, this veneer of rationality and absolutism about the way that you live…'”

From The New York Daily News – 9th June 2002:

“David Bowie tosses around terms like futurism, generalism, relativism, 19th-century romanticism and existentialism. He alludes to Baudelaire, Matisse, Martin Amis, Anthony Burgess and George Orwell, and holds court on topics like the end of the music industry, the state of the novel, the role of the cult artist and the connection between identity and pop culture.”

I’m always interested in finding out what people I respect, especially writers, are reading. One of the features available to members only on davidbowie.com, the official site now either defunct or soon to be revised was a list of books he recommended.

It’s as eclectic a collection as one would expect from a man of many talents and lively intelligence. He certainly had come a long way from the boy who left school at 16. Even well into his 20’s Bowie’s favorites were still the standard stuff of his generation: Kerouac, Orwell, Burroughs, a bit of Nietzsche. What you find below is considerably more sophisticated. But notice too that both Stephen King and theologian Elaine Pagels are authors who he’ll read anything and everything by.

The plan was to keep adding to the list. Unfortunately, as on the rest of the site, Bowie quit providing content around 2004.  This list is mostly compiled from davidbowie.com (some titles were  mentioned in his online journal rather than on the books page). (Note: * means named in video David Bowie: An Earthling @ 50.)


  • War and Peace — Leo Tolstoy [novel]
  • Barchester Towers  — Anthony Trollope [novel]
  • Visions of Gerard — Jack Kerouac [novel]
  • On The Road — Jack Kerouac [novel]
  • City of Night — John Rechy [novel]
  • Journey to the End of the Night  — Louis-Ferdinand D. Celine [novel]
  • Hawksmoor  — Peter Ackroyd [novel]
  • Clockwork Orange — Anthony Burgess [novel]
  • White Noise  — Don Delillo [novel]
  • Blue Afternoon  — William Boyd [novel]
  • Cities of the Red Night  — William Burroughs [novel]
  • The Viceroy of Ouidah — Bruce Chatwin [novel]
  • The Insult — Rupert Thomson [novel]
  • The Tetherballs of Bougainville — Mark Leyner (“Super pumped-up surrealist writing. Dope funny.”)
  • Stephen King  [novelist] . “I’ve read everything Stephen King’s written. I love Stephen King. Scares the shite out or me.”
  • Julian Barnes [novelist]
  • George Orwell [novelist]
  • Charles Baudelaire [poet]
  • Christopher Isherwood* [novelist, memoirist]


Memoir, Biography, Autobiography

  • Iris — John Bayley [her widower writes of last years of Iris Murdoch]
  • Big Mouth Strikes Again  — Tony Parsons [memoir, personal essay, opinion pieces]
  • Personal Delivery — Duncan McLaren [memoir]. This is what McLaren says about his work:

    “Of the 12 books I’ve written so far, two have been published in full. I was 40 when ‘Personal Delivery’ came out, while ‘Looking For Enid’ appeared 10 years later. The call I got from David Bowie, an inspiration of my adolescence, congratulating me on ‘Personal Delivery’, just about balances the clutch of one-star reviews I’ve received on the Amazon.co.uk site for my book on Enid Blyton, the wonder of my childhood. What next? Books on Evelyn Waugh and my mother are in the pipeline. At least as far as I’m concerned they are. My ambition is to have three books in Amazon’s list of the top one million sellers by the year 2020. No, dammit, four!”

  • The Life and Times of Thomas More — Peter Ackroyd
  • James Dean, the Mutant King: A Biography — David Dalton
  • Blame Me On History — Bloke Modisane [autobiography]
  • Modern Nature  — Derek Jarman [memoir]
  • Tom Paine: A Political Life — John Keane
  • Duchamp: A Biography — Calvin Tomkins
  • A Better Class of Person  — John Osborne [autobiography]
  • Peter Cook — Harry Thomson [biography]
  • Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett — James Knowlson
  • Ridiculous!: The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam — David Kaufman
  • Experience  — Martin Amis ( “A man and his dentist !!”) [memoir]
  • Black Boy— Richard Wright (“one of the great influential books for both the Panthers and Malcom X”) [autobiography]

Philosophy, Culture,  History

  • Faith And Treason: The Story Of The Gunpowder Plot — Antonia Fraser
  • Pandaemonium 1660-1886. The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers — Humphrey Jennings
  • Illusion of the End -— Jean Baudrillard [cultural history]
  • Strange People — Frank Edwards [just as title says]
  • Cigarettes Are Sublime —  Richard Klein [cultural history]
  • Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind — Julian Jaynes
  • Brain of the Firm — Stafford Beer [neurology x business administration]
  • Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder — Lawrence Weschler [tour of Museum of Jurassic Technology]
  • The Gnostic Gospels — Elaine Pagels. “I inevitably read anything written by Elaine Pagels.” [theology]
  • Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan — Rem Koolhaas [architecture, cultural history]
  • Modern Times Modern Places — Peter Conrad [cultural history]
  • John Pilger [politics]
  • Michael Gross [fashion]
  • Melvin Bragg*
  • Friedrich Nietzsche*
  • Bertrand Russell*


  • Coming Through Slaughter  — Michael Ondaatje [biography x fiction; jazz]
  • Nowhere to Run: The Story of Soul Music — Gerri Hirshey
  • The Life and Times of Little Richard  — Charles White
  • England’s Dreaming — Jon Savage [punk]
  • Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk — Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain
  • Incredibly Strange Music, Vols. One and Two —  RE/Search
  • Lexicon of Musical Invective — Nicolas Slonimsky
  • The Poet’s Manual and Rhyming Dictionary — Francis Stillman
  • Between Thought and Expression: Selected Lyrics of Lou Reed

Visual Arts

  • Beyond the Brillo Box — Arthur C. Danto
  • Jean-Michel Basquiat (2 vols.) — Jean-Louis Prat and Richard Marshall
  • Blimey — Matthew Collings
  • Shark Infested Waters:  The Saatchi Collection Of British Art — Sarah Kent
  • A History of British Art — Andrew Graham-Dixon

Looking Back:

A few of the 279 books on the occult  Bowie was reading in the mid-1970’s, according to Gary Lachman and cited by Paul Trynka in David Bowie: Starman:

  • Spear of Destiny—Trevor Ravenscroft
  • Morning of the Magicians—Pauwels & Bergier
  • The Outsider— Colin Wilson
  • A. E. Waite*
  • MacGregor Mathers*

By 1996, Bowie had likely thinned out a lot of these 279 books: “‘Nobody professing a knowledge of the black arts,’ says Bowie firmly,`should be taken seriously if they can’t speak Latin or Greek.'”

2 thoughts on “What’s on Bowie’s Bookshelves?

  1. Hi, I’m the Duncan McLaren whose book, ‘Personal Delivery’, started off Bowie’s book reviewing section on BowieNet back in 1998. What he said about my book on contemporary art was very nice and I quote from it on the DAVID page of my website (www.duncanmclaren.co.uk). He noticed from the biographical note at the start of the book that I’d written another – unpublished – book called ‘Chinese Illustrations of the Path to Immortality’. It was when he read this work that he called me and asked if the book was free. He asked in a professional capacity, in other words he was one of four directors of ’21’ Publishing, which had published ‘Nat Tate’ by William Boyd and ‘Blimey’ by Matthew Collings. Bowie himself was writing features for the art magazine ‘Modern Painters’ at the time. Unfortunately, his latest album ‘Outside’, which reflected his interest in contemporary art, didn’t do particularly well (though I liked it!), and he, perhaps at the bequest of his record company,(“concentrate on your core product, Dave, your sounds!”) pulled back from the contemporary art world, and from reviewing books. For that reason, I suspect, my idiosyncratic book didn’t get published by ’21’ (as I knew it was unlikely to anyway, because of the three more conservative fellow-directors of that publishing house). As it happens, I’ve just (March 2012) published the book myself as a website http://www.immortality.org.uk and the Bowie connection is mentioned in the INTRO and in the BOOK OF BOOKS page.

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