Bowie's Bookshelf

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 31 Dec 2019

Member Reviews

I'm a big Bowie fan and enjoy books about books. The cover design is attractive and the content is structured well. I enjoyed learning about how Bowie had a lot of books while filming "The Man Who Fell To Earth". However, the books featured in this are largely Literature with a capital L and overwhelmingly written by white men; neither is particularly appealing to me. I will stick to enjoying Bowie's music and leave this book for those who share his taste in reading material.
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Confession time: I assume that I can determine what kind of person you are by looking at your bookshelf. It’s true. I will walk into your house for the first time, seek out any and all bookshelves (within socially acceptable parameters, of course) and make sweeping generalizations about who you are.

Anyone who spends serious time with books believes that much can be gleaned about a person by the books with which they choose to surround themselves. We are what we read. That’s true of us regular folks, but it’s also true of the creative giants who walk among us. Much can be learned about the artist through the art they consume.

Artists like the late David Bowie.

Veteran music journalist John O’Connell has written a book that grants us the next best thing to poking around Bowie’s personal library. "Bowie’s Bookshelf: The Hundred Books that Changed David Bowie’s Life" offers up snapshot looks at the literary works that most inspired Bowie, from his early days through the end of his life. Through brief essays, O’Connell builds some connective tissue between the artist and the books on this list.

As for the list itself? It springs from a retrospective exhibit on Bowie from back in 2013. Titled “David Bowie Is,” it was an extensive look back on Bowie’s career. As part of that exhibit, curator Geoffrey Marsh included a list of Bowie’s 100 favorite books.

Bowie was a legendary reader, so it only stood to reason that he would have a thorough and eclectic collection of favorites. From the list sprang an informal online David Bowie Book Club, started by Bowie’s son, the filmmaker Duncan Jones.

O’Connell’s book goes through each of these titles one by one, offering up some general insights on the works while also delving into thoughts on just why they might have made it onto this list.

And make no mistake – it is a vast and varied selection. Bowie’s literary tastes clearly ranged toward the omnivorous, with works from all manner of genre making appearances. The list leans a bit toward fiction, but there’s plenty of nonfiction there as well. There’s a good deal of affection for American authors, but there are also a lot of writings from Bowie’s UK countrymen. He ventures farther afield as well.

Obviously, working through the whole list makes little sense, but it might be fun to point out a few highlights and maybe a surprise or two.

There’s plenty of “classic” literature here. Titles like Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” and Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” and Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying.” Thoughtful treatises like “Hall’s Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art” and “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.” Esoteric stuff like Eliphas Levi’s “Transcendental Magic, Its Doctrine and Ritual” and “The Gnostic Gospels” by Elaine Pagels.

“A Confederacy of Dunces.” “In Cold Blood.” “On the Road.” “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” “A Clockwork Orange” and “1984” (Orwell appears twice – his “Inside the Whale and Other Essays” is also on the list). Nabokov and Chabon and Camus and DeLillo.

Not to mention epic poetry and comic strips and music biographies. And so on and so forth.

It should be noted that none of these essays are long enough to delve particularly deeply into any of these works. In many ways, it works best as an introduction to the books that somehow, someway impacted the life and art of David Bowie. Perhaps some significant philosophy or aesthetic was derived from a work; perhaps it was simply a story that engaged and compelled him in some small way. Whatever the reasoning, the connection was significant enough to warrant inclusion on a list such as this one – no small honor when bestowed by such a devoted bibliophile.

O’Connell looks for ways to connect the dots, mining the books and Bowie’s life and career to find the places where the pieces lock together. Some of those connections are clearer with others; the subtler ones don’t always click in the same fashion as the more obvious choices. Regardless, it’s a wonderful and idiosyncratic way to get some insight into what made Bowie tick.

“Bowie’s Bookshelf” might not be physically present, but this book offers the chance for us to poke around anyway, to look at his shelves and judge their content. For whatever it’s worth, it’s the selection of a reader with whom I share many similar (and a few very different) tastes.

You can learn some things from a bookshelf. And you can learn some things from “Bowie’s Bookshelf.”

“The only art I’ll ever study is the stuff that I can steal from.” – David Bowie
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John O'Connell's "Bowie's Bookshelf" is a look at the books who made the man who made the music, David Bowie. Bowie, a brilliant autodidact and avid reader, once created a list of the one hundred books he found most influential, and here O'Connell provides that list, along with a summary of each book and an analysis of how it might have shaped Bowie's persona and music. The author also provides a suggested David Bowie song to play in light of each book, and he also suggests another book or two readers might seek out if they enjoy Bowie's title. Each of Bowie's books gets approximately three pages of treatment, serving as a mini-chapter for each.

The books on Bowie's list run the gamut from classics familiar to most educated readers--at least in synopsis--to more obscure titles. My hunch is that readers of O'Connell's book, who are presumably folks who like books and are of an age to be Bowie fans, likely have a familiarity with the rough outlines of works like The Iliad or The Great Gatsby, but they might be less likely to have thought much about how threads plucked from these works might have been woven into the tapestry of Bowie's work. Of course, a lot of O'Connell's ideas about this are speculative, with Bowie no longer here to confirm or deny O'Connell's assertions. The book includes its share of perhapses, could haves, and likelies; yes, it's a mental exercise, but it's usually a fun one.

And as a surprise to probably no one and maybe also an understatement, Bowie was also into some freaky sh**; the descriptions of a handful of the more unfamiliar titles had me clutching my pearls a little (mostly due to mentions of animal cruelty), though I appreciated the heads-up those titles probably won't be for me. As another likely non-surprise, the authors on his list skew twentieth century, western, white, and male. That said, there are exceptions to the pattern on every one of those fronts, enough to show that while he might have been the product of a particular place and time, he strove conscientiously to transcend that. 

O'Connell's work ultimately serves as an effort to situate Bowie--the man, the construct, the artist--in terms of the literature he consumed, and his effort inches readers closer to understanding the enigmatic performer who adopted and shed personas like quicksilver. But at the same time, it serves as a reminder of his ineffability and of the fact that Bowie absorbed and processed his influences in ways that were profoundly unique, defying facile characterizations as much as the Starman himself did.

(Thanks to Netgalley for a review copy.)
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As long as you know what you're getting into (and are a huge Bowie fan), this is a completely enjoyable book.  Basically gives a brief synopsis of each of 100 books that David Bowie read during this lifetime and tries to point out how they may have influenced his music in approximately one page or less.  Some are, of course, more obvious than others.  In my opinion, this is only for hardcore Bowie obsessives, of which there are plenty.
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I am a book lover, so when I find out that a celebrity or other person I admire also loves books I am further smitten. So this book that is part list, part book recommend, part biography was one I was very excited to read.

The best part was that after each little section about a book there was a recommendation for another book you might like and a song to listen to. And then at the top of many of the sections there were little bits of illustration that was wonderful. This is a lot of fun.

The part that I wasn't as enamored with was that some of the books seemed to be chosen by the author who was speculating that Bowie would have loved them. I didn't really care about those entries and would have preferred the book to be shorter with fewer entries if he could have stuck to only books Bowie actually cared about.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for the digital ARC in exchange for my honest review.
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I'm a huge fan of David Bowie and like him, I'm also a voracious reader. So I was curious to see what books I had already read from his list of 100 best books to read and how those books have influenced his music. This was a very interesting read since I am a fan of his. But I don't know how much it could interest others who are not, or who don't care much for books.
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It's very interesting how O'Connell makes the small connections of words or phases from a book and shows how Bowie translated that into his music. I cannot say I want to run out and read these books but I learned more about Bowie's artistic process and artwork.
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If you’re curious about David Bowie’s creative influences, you’ll likely appreciate John O'Connell’s brief essays about the books that Bowie claimed changed his life. I’ve read many books about Bowie, but I still learned from this book. I also enjoyed the cartoons scattered throughout.

Each essay discusses the context and potential influence of one of the books on Bowie’s list, and then concludes with a suggestion of one of Bowie’s songs to listen to while reading, and another book you might want to try if you enjoy Bowie’s selection. I’ve only read a few of the works on Bowie’s list, and I appreciated learning about his other selections, some of which I now intend to read for myself.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn about Bowie’s influences or learn about his diverse selection of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and comics. This would be a fun book to have on hand to just read one entry whenever you have a few spare moments.

I was provided an ARC through NetGalley that I volunteered to review.
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Veteran music journalist John O’Connell has taken the list of 100 books David Bowie says changed his life and offered book lovers and Bowie fans closer look at both subjects.

I read voraciously, so I was a bit surprised to find very few books on Bowie’s list that I have read and quite a number I’d never heard of. For this reason, I appreciated the short synopsis of each book included in the essays. I also liked that O’Connell ends on each essay with pairing suggestions: A Bowie song to listen to while reading the listed book and another book or two to read, if you find you like this one.

O’Connell’s attempts to identify the direct effect of each book on Bowie’s art sometimes offers fascinating insights and other times falls a bit flat. Nonetheless, I came away with deeper understanding of the man whose music gives me so much joy and an even longer TBR list.

So many books; so little time. Four stars for this one.

Thanks to Netgalley and Simon and Schuster for this advanced readers copy.
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Pretty interesting. What happens first is that the reader scans the title list of stuff Bowie supposedly read and sees for herself what she has read too. In this way the reader can assess how much she has in common with Bowie's thought process. That's momentarily fun.
I like the idea of the book. There are quite a few titles I had never read and many I never heard of. It's an innovative way to read somebody else's mind and why not? We have steadily become aware, in bits and pieces, that Bowie was nowhere close to a dumbheaded heart throb. He really had genius. Who knew that he READ every single day? I like this book and the more I learn about Bowie the more I like him. It's okay that he spiked and colored his hair pink and went onstage with a ukulele.
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I had no idea David Bowie was such a voracious reader. The vast spectrum of literature he embraced, his compulsion with books and how they inspired, influenced and impacted his life are well-documented by the author. I am an avid reader but so many books referenced within that I had never heard of. Enjoyable biographic bits and backstory peppered into the mix.
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I devoured this title and learned so much more about the man Bowie was. I’ll admit that I didn’t know a lot about him, but people I love were devastated at his death. Learning how people read and what they find monumental in their reading lives tells us exactly what we need in order to find their deepest spirit. Just wow. This is a booklist fit for a legend
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"Three years before David Bowie died, he shared a list of 100 books that changed his life. His choices span fiction and nonfiction, literary and irreverent, and include timeless classics alongside eyebrow-raising obscurities.

In 100 short essays, music journalist John O’Connell studies each book on Bowie’s list and contextualizes it in the artist’s life and work. How did the power imbued in a single suit of armor in The Iliad impact a man who loved costumes, shifting identity, and the siren song of the alter-ego? How did The Gnostic Gospels inform Bowie’s own hazy personal cosmology? How did the poems of T.S. Eliot and Frank O’Hara, the fiction of Vladimir Nabokov and Anthony Burgess, the comics of The Beano and The Viz, and the groundbreaking politics of James Baldwin influence Bowie’s lyrics, his sound, his artistic outlook? How did the 100 books on this list influence one of the most influential artists of a generation?

Heartfelt, analytical, and totally original, Bowie’s Bookshelf is one part epic reading guide and one part biography of a music legend."

A few years back I went to the touring Bowie exhibit and it was apparent that he was inspired by everything he took in, in particular what he read. This little insight into his life is invaluable to a fuller understanding of this remarkable man.
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This is an interesting book full of books! Bowie was such a creative person and you can see that in all the ways he surrounded himself with new information. I really like anything about him.
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Bowie's Bookshelf 
by John O'Connell
due 11-19-2019
Gallery
4.5 / 5.0
#netgalley #bowiesbookshelf

A fantastic homage to David Bowie, a legend who inspired so many in so many ways, is so many unique ways. As well as to readers and book lovers.
Bowie was a voracious reader, and his reading tastes encompass every genre. Chosen from Bowies book collection of over 1500 books, these 100 novels were picked to share how they influenced his personal life, his career and his music; as well as the characters he invented throughout his career. (Ziggy Stardust, Thin White Duke, Hunky Dory, etc.).
Bowie always feared flying, preferring to travel by land. One of the perks of travelling by train or bus was he could bring along and easily access his library, and had the time and quiet to read and study them.
Each book is given a short, concise look at what the book was about and how it may have been an influence. Each book also includes a Read While Listening To...a suggestion of song or album that reflect the book, as well as a If You Liked This, Try...with a similar book for further reading. This is definitely inspiration to read more, and explore different genres.
Well done, well researched, I look forward to checking out the hard cover in November.
Thanks to netgalley and the publisher for sending this e-book ARC for review.
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When Bowie first shared his list of 100 favorite books, I immediately started to work my way through them. It even inspired me to create and maintain my own list of 100 favorite books. So, of course when I saw this title, I knew I had to read it. 

O'Connell thoughtfully dives into the history of Bowie in relation to the choices he made with the books, giving backstory and insight into how they may have shaped certain aspects of his life, or his art. As a Bowie fan I loved reading this unique take on his life, but as a reader, I loved reading about the books themselves and am using this to better prioritize my own reading choices. I think I will read many of those books even more thoughtfully as a result of O'Connell's information. 

A must-read if you love Bowie, and a wonderful read if you just love books and want a glimpse into how words can change one's life.
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I saw this book reviewed in Kirkus magazine and I said this could be such a gem of book. NetGalley was kind enough to make this available to me. Growing up in the 80’s one of the most iconic images I remember at the library was of David Bowie for the Read campaign. I knew he was reader, but did you know he carried a portable library of 1500 books. That is just astounding. 

O’Connell, takes us on a journey of 100 of Bowie’s most beloved books. Each book is a vignette to why Bowie loved these book. There are many classics that they chose, but more often than not these were books I never heard of. My To Be Read has grown two-fold because of this. 

If you love Bowie or simply love books, this is a must read. I think this will become essential reading for every book lover. 

Thank you NetGalley and Gallery books for an Advanced Reader’s Copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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I remember begging my parents to stay up late to watch David Bowie perform on Saturday Night Live. That was the start of my fascination with his eccentric costumes and personas, not to mention his lyrics and music. It wasn’t until many years later I realized what an avid reader he was (he had a special trunk library of 1500 volumes he often traveled with). When he first released his list of the 100 books that changed his life, like any good bibliophile, I was intrigued. So when I had the chance for an advance copy of this book, I jumped at the chance. As the author points out, these are not Bowie’s favorite books, but those that had a material effect on him. 

The book is a collection of short essays on each of the books. Each essay provides a short summary of the book (yes, occasionally there are spoilers), how it influenced Bowie which is often fascinating to understand, and my favorite part - what Bowie song to listen to when reading that particular book and another book title which is similar to the book. Not only is this an interesting read for Bowie and non- Bowie fans, but a great publication of book essays for bibliophiles like me.
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Bowie's Bookshelf: The Hundred Books that Changed David Bowie's Life from John O'Connell is a wonderful book on several levels.

For Bowie fans this takes Bowie's list of the 100 most influential (not necessarily favorite) books on his life and offers some contextualization with Bowie's life. There is certainly some educated guesses about exactly what each book may have meant or how it influenced his music, but for the most part the explanations make sense. Of course, without knowing from Bowie himself, it is mostly conjecture. But even that is fun and enlightening. If Bowie put a work on this list it likely has some trace in his artistic output and O'Connell makes a good faith effort to tease out the possibilities.

For ravenous readers or lit majors, the list is interesting in and of itself. The books are not limited in either topic or complexity. Most readers will likely have read no more than half of these books. I read quite a bit and have for almost 60 years and I have only read 32 of them. Some of these I still have no desire to read but the fact Bowie thought so highly of these has convinced me to read a number of the ones I haven't. O'Connell doesn't so much give a synopsis of each book, I doubt he has read all of them himself, but he does offer enough about each book to make the connection to Bowie's work. As such, there aren't major spoilers but there are also no in depth analyses either. Which is probably for the best.

For people who fall into both categories this book offers a glimpse into what helped to make Bowie into who he was and enough background on the books to couple with your own knowledge to make, perhaps, additional connections. Everyone finds different ways into the music they like, so while O'Connell certainly offers interesting avenues into the music through these books you may well find more. Or at least ways that speak more specifically to how you understand the music. This is not, and does not pretend to be, a definitive analysis of all connections between the books and the music. It does, however, offer a great first step or two, from which we can find our own paths forward.

I think there is enough here to make this a good read for not only the readers I mention above but even the casual readers who likes either literary lists and/or the interplay between different art forms and how they influence each other.

Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.
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Bowie's Bookshelf is a deep dive into David Bowie's list of one hundred books that changed his life, released three years before his death from cancer. Author John O'Connell (an avid and amazingly obvious Bowiephile) relates the history, plot, and connections to both Bowie's life and works in each of the one hundred short essays that accompany each book on the list. 

O'Connell does a fabulous job of painting of a picture of the Starman throughout his career, from his crack addled mania during the Station to Station sessions, the Berlin era with Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, and the post-heart attack recluse in his later years. A chameleon in many aspects of his life, a love for books was a constant, and his list sheds intriguing light on the strong influences literature had on his musical evolution.

Most likely, this book is for the hardened Bowie fan only, as it assumes a wide pre-knowledge of his work and life. While I can't see myself reading the majority of these books soon, Bowie's Bookshelf is certainly a unique view into what made the star tick. 

**I was given a copy of this book by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks to Gallery Books.**
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