Music Journalist John O'Connell on Why He Tracked the Influence of 100 Books on David Bowie's Music

CUL_Bowie_07_QandA_Bowie's Bookshelf_Banner
Courtesy of Gallery Books

In his new book, Bowie's Bookshelf, music journalist John O'Connell offers a unique analysis of David Bowie's self-proclaimed hundred most influential books, and how these titles influenced the symbolism and lyrics of one of the great musicians of the 20th century.

O'Connell interviewed Bowie in 2002, and in this Q&A, he shares his insights about Bowie and how this book came into being.

Why this book?

I've been a Bowie superfan since I was about 12. I wanted to honor him with a book, and after his top 100 list appeared, I thought it would be fun to tease out connections between the titles and Bowie's life and work.

What surprised you about meeting Bowie? Is he different from his persona?

I expected him to be chillier and more aloof. What surprised me most was how funny he was. For all the seriousness with which he applied himself to being successful, Bowie's relationship to the world was essentially comic. He was completely aware of the absurdity at the heart of being a "rock star," and there's a lot more humor in his work than many people realize.

Did you know then that he was a voracious reader? What did he share with you about the connection of his music to literature?

I'd heard the stories about the portable library Bowie carried around with him in the 1970s. It was obvious from his work that he had a wider frame of reference than most of his peers. He was promoting the Heathen album when I met him [in 2002], and he did talk a little about Gnosticism. But he didn't specifically reference Elaine Pagels' book [from the list], or indeed any of the others.

What is your favorite Bowie song?

Some days, it's "Life On Mars?" for its sheer melodic wondrousness. On others, it's "Lazarus" for the way it builds to that swirling finale. As a lapsed Catholic, though, I'll go with "Word On A Wing." "In this age of grand illusion, you walked into my life out of my dreams..." In the wrong hands it would be ridiculous, but Bowie takes you on this extraordinary theological journey; it's a hymn, really—and you believe every word.

Which book on the list do you connect with most?

Of the books on the list, around 15 are among my personal favorites; for example, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Nights At The Circus and Madame Bovary. The book I connect with most in terms of this project is Julian Barnes' Flaubert's Parrot. It's not a novel so much as an extended meditation on how much you can ever really know about an artist you love; also on the way extreme fandom is sometimes a way of displacing or deferring things you can't (or don't want to) deal with in your own life. A key question Barnes asks is how much we're the sum of our trappings. Does seeing the glass from which Flaubert took his last sip bring us closer to him? Bowie spent a lot of time amassing and conserving the relics of his career, so I think Flaubert's Parrot may have been quite a personal book for him.