R. D. Laing — The Divided Self
Madness has been a constant theme in Bowie’s songs, both as a sort of seductive escape from the world (“All the Madmen”) and as a sort of dire destiny (“Quicksand”). At least part of his interest in the subject is due to personal history — apparently mental illness runs in his family. In particular, his older brother Terry was schizophrenic, and killed himself in 1985 (as related in the Black Tie White Noise track “Jump They Say”). In light of all this, it’s both interesting and perhaps unsurprising to find Laing’s classic 1964 study of schizophrenia on this list — it’s a study of what it means to be sane and the nature of consciousness, ideas that also crop up again and again in Bowie’s lyrics.
Douglas Harding — On Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious
On a more esoteric ontological note, there’s also this fascinating-looking text by British philosopher and spiritualist Douglas Harding. As per Harding’s website, it deals with a sort of spiritual epiphany he experienced on a walk in the Himalayas: “The best day of my life — my rebirthday, so to speak — was when I found I had no head. This is not a literary gambit, a witticism designed to arouse interest at any cost. I mean it in all seriousness: I have no head… What happened was something absurdly simple and unspectacular: I stopped thinking… For once, words really failed me. Past and future dropped away. I forgot who and what I was, my name, manhood, animalhood, all that could be called mine. It was as if I had been born that instant, brand new, mindless, innocent of all memories. There existed only the Now, that present moment and what was clearly given in it. ”
Julian Jaynes — The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
The nature of consciousness is clearly something that interests Bowie, because his list also includes this 1976 volume wherein Jaynes advances the remarkable idea that until about 3,000 years ago, humans’ left and right brains didn’t communicate the way they do now, and thus all of humanity heard voices in the way that schizophrenics often do today. It’s… um, well, it’s quite a theory, no?
Ed Sanders — Tales of Beatnik Glory
Given Bowie’s well-documented use of William S. Burroughs’ cut-up method as an aid to lyric writing, it’s a surprise not to see any Burroughs on the list. Instead, it’s Kerouac’s On the Road that represents the Beats, along with relatively obscure poet and latter-day beatnik Ed Sanders.
Eliphas Lévi — Transcendental Magic, Its Doctrine and Ritual
It’s also interesting that there’s neither Crowley nor Nietzsche, since they seemed to be the predominant influences on Bowie’s writing circa The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory. However, the list isn’t entirely devoid of magic(k) — there’s this famous treatise on ceremonial magic, which was to be an influence on Crowley’s ideas of Thelemism and presumably also on Bowie’s own expeditions into the occult.
Nathaneal West — The Day of the Locust
A bleak portrait of LA alienation in the depths of the Great Depression, following the life of a bunch of curiously one-dimensonal Hollywood fringe dwellers. It’s not hard to draw a parallel between this and the LA-centric cocaine-fueled paranoia and alienation of Station to Station, especially as a film version of this was released around the same time that Bowie was recording that album (not that he remembers making it).
Otto Friedrich — Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s
Bowie and Germany have a long association, and his interest in its history predates his moving to Berlin in the mid-1970s. In particular, the music and art of the Weimar period seem to have held enduring fascination — songs like “Time” and “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide” have a distinctly cabaret sound to them, and he described his Thin White Duke aesthetic as “a kind of Expressionist German-film look … and the lighting of, say, Fritz Lang or Pabst. A black-and-white movies look, but with an intensity that was sort of aggressive.” Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz is also on the list, further cementing the Weimar connection.
Peter Sadecky — Octobriana and the Russian Underground
A fake history of a comic book written by a fictional group of Russian artists, apparently. There’s a fascinating story behind this.
George Steiner — In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture
A slim volume that nevertheless contains a wealth of ideas about the direction of Western culture in the wake of the Second World War, and the cultural crisis brought on by the fact that “high” culture failed to prevent the horrors of the 20th century, and particularly the Holocaust. It was published in 1971, but remains both startlingly relevant and curiously prescient, particularly in his ideas about the decline of the written word and its replacement with an increasingly visual culture.
Susan Jacoby — The Age of American Unreason
The evolution and nature of popular culture is clearly another subject that fascinates Bowie. Nearly 40 years after In Bluebeard’s Castle, Jacoby takes a similarly holistic view of culture, arguing that the history of the last four decades has been characterized by a shift toward determined ignorance and anti-rationalism. You can make an argument for finding traces of these ideas in the world-weariness and latent misanthtropy of The Next Day.
Camille Paglia — Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson
There’s always been something decadent about Bowie’s various aesthetics, too, especially in the hedonistic days of the early to mid-’70s. His work as Ziggy Stardust and his exploration of paganism, in particular, would fit right into Paglia’s ideas about how Dionysian decadence manifests in Western popular culture.
Frank O’Hara — Selected Poems
It’s perhaps surprising that Bowie’s an O’Hara fan — the poet’s relatively immediate and observational style forms quite the contrast to Bowie’s lyrics, which are often obtuse and cryptic. But then, perhaps O’Hara’s ideas of spontaneity appeal to our hero — he was famous for writing on the spur of the moment, something that would perhaps resonate with Bowie’s cut-up-driven methods of creation. He was also a prominent figure in the art world, which ties in nicely to Bowie’s interest in painting.
Spike Milligan — Puckoon
Bowie’s sense of humor is often underrated, and by the look of the stuff on this list, he leans heavily toward absurdism and surrealism. Milligan’s only novel is a darkly comic romp through the history of Irish partition, and it’s joined on Bowie’s list by the likes of Mikhail Bulgakov’s brilliant The Master and Margarita and Martin Amis’ Money, amongst others.
Peter Guralnick — Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom
This can’t have been a direct influence on Bowie’s “plastic soul” period, circa Young Americans, because it wasn’t published until 1986 — but it’s good to see that he maintains an interest in soul music and the musicians who made it.
And finally, the best thing about this entire list is the image it evokes of David Bowie sitting in a suburban laundromat reading the adventures of Ravey Davey Gravey, Buster Gonad, and Johnny Fartpants.