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“What is your idea of perfect happiness?’ : David Bowie’s Reading List

Written by The Reader, 11th November 2016

Inspired by Frank Cottrell-Boyce's lecture on David Bowie's Reading List, Lauren reflects on the joy to be found in books, music and Shared Reading. 

I love Bowie. I always have done. My Bowie-love began when my stepdad would play his vinyls on his old record player. Heroes is my audio companion when I feel unravelled and visiting the Bowie mural in Brixton is on my 2016 bucket list.. and time is running out for that!

It is no secret and will probably come as no surprise, that I’m also a self-proclaimed Bibliophile so when I saw that our Reader patron, Frank Cottrell-Boyce was doing a talk titled David Bowie’s Reading List for Liverpool Literary Festival, I bought myself a ticket with no hesitation.

It was the last efcbvent for their inaugural event and I would guess around 100 people turned up on this cold Sunday evening to share their appreciation for Bowie and his literary influences.

The lecture was not only informative but it also made me realise the depth and philosophy behind not only Bowie's music but his day-to-day nature. He posed with books. He carried books in his pocket as a fashion statement and actively spoke out about his disdain towards non-readers:

"Nobody reads anymore, nobody goes out and looks and explores the society and culture that they were brought up in. People have attention spans of five seconds and as much depth as a glass of water. "

To him, it seems, reading was not only a form of escape or influential to his music, but completely and utterly essential to our human existence.

Frank also shared a story which makes me think I’m a bit Bowie myself. Bowie does not and will not leave his books in the hands of anyone who seems remotely suspect or unreliable – this I am also guilty of (so if you have ever borrowed a book of mine and returned it in one piece, here’s to you!) In 1976 whilst filming The Man Who To Earth, Bowie took 400 books with him. Twenty years later, he tells Mr Showbiz why:

"I was dead scared of leaving them in New York, because I was knocking around with some dodgy people and I didn’t want them nicking my books. I had these cabinets – it was a travelling library – and they were rather like the boxes that amplifiers get packed up in … because of that period, I have an extraordinarily good collection of books."

I can’t tell you what those 400 ‘extraordinarily good’ books were, but you can see his top 100 recommended reads here.

This week on BBC Radio 3, the presenters asked listeners to send in books that have been influenced by songs for the #LoveToRead campaign. I considered this on the turn of it's head and thought that Bowie's music must have been influenced by the great breadth of reading he had conquered in his lifetime. His 1974 album, Diamond Dogs has numerous links to George Orwell’s, 1984. Notably the song aptly titled 1984 which features the lyrics:

 They’ll split your pretty cranium and fill if full of air,
And tell that you’re eighty, but brother, you won’t care
Beware the savage jaw of 1984 

Following this trajectory, Bowie planned on writing a 1984 musical, until the project was refused by Orwell’s widow. A huge part of me wishes that this became a reality, as Bowie seemingly intended to mix two of his greatest pleasures – and that is something that I feel this world is missing.

26409459525_2c88e910f0_qFrank opened the lecture with a question Bowie once asked Vanity Fair,'what is your idea of perfect happiness?'

I interpret this perfect happiness to be when you’re at your most serene, and it seems to me that regardless of all the heartache and destruction within Bowie’s life it is books that grounded him. This is something that I am constantly reminded of when I hear and witness people’s experiences in Shared Reading: no matter where we are or what madness is going on in our day to day lives, for that session you can completely zone out and be free from stress.

As Frank reminded me, books are companions in the silent hour and bring landscapes to life. If you want to delve into the brain of Bowie, much like I do, then plough your way through his 100 recommended reads this Christmas!

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