David Bowie Is, the hugely popular touring exhibition from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, has been packing crowds into the Art Gallery of Ontario. Before the Toronto opening on Sept. 26, the curators released a list of Bowie’s 100 must-read books (download the PDF here).
Dr. Kathryn Johnson is the research assistant for all exhibition content related to books and lyrics. She spoke to Q&Q about the list and the books included in the exhibition.
Why did you release the book list? We were sent the list by the David Bowie Archive. We also asked them to tell us what edition of each book he owns, and when he was reading it. It gives us an idea of how each book relates to different periods of his career.
You can pick up on so many themes you find in his music and work. These are not his 100 favourites – these are the books that have influenced his work and are creatively important to him. It’s interesting, too, that the list doesn’t include William S. Burroughs, who Bowie has often spoken of as a huge influence. I do think it’s a very personal list, and gives a more nuanced and subtle idea of the books he was reading.
Why do you think this list has created so much discussion? It’s like a library, really. And then there’s that feeling when you have one of those titles on your own bookshelf. Although it might seem a little silly, it still somehow feels like you’ve gotten one step closer to understanding him.
How did you choose which books to display in the exhibition? The book display is intended to be a bit of a cosmic soup – it’s a spread of all the influences feeding into his work. We chose books that we were able to match, edition-wise, with the ones Bowie himself would have had at different points of his life.
You’ll see quite a few that have been censored – Last Exit to Brooklyn and Lolita – I think he’s drawn to books that push the boundaries, just like he does. And then you look at a book like John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. Like that book, there are a lot of examples on this list where there’s some kind of slippage between the way the protagonist sees themselves and the way everyone else sees them.
One of the titles we chose to highlight is George Steiner’s In Bluebeard’s Castle, which is particularly important to Bowie because it introduced him to postmodernist ideas. There’s a great quote in it where Steiner talks about music being a type of Esperanto; going across the world and connecting, giving young people, in particular, a world that’s just their own.
How does the collection of Beano comic strips fit into the list? I think it explains the way Bowie can bring avant-garde books and ideas to such a wide range of people. He knows how to make that connection. You can like Beano and Dante, and, in fact, it’s better if you like both. So many people read Beano in the 1960s, and I think he liked the graphic look of it. Bowie’s first and only office job was in advertising, and graphic design was always an interest.
In the part of the exhibition that covers Bowie’s life in the ’60s, there’s a complex projection that appears as if you’re looking down on his bed as a teenager. You can see copies of Beano spread on the covers, as well as Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, which is all about advertising. You can also see a copy of Frank Edward’s Strange People, which is where Bowie first came across the character of the Elephant Man, whom he’d eventually portray on Broadway.
He just used to read a hell of a lot. He lived a lot in his mind. I guess that’s not too different from a lot of other creative teenagers, the way these influences have lasted and the way he remembers them. You can also see the corner of Divided Self by R.D. Laing. That’s an important book. Laing was one of the first to say the behaviour of people who have turned mad is not a disorder to be ignored, but an expression of distress that needs to be listened to. In a radio interview from this period, Bowie talks about the mental illness in his family, and how he felt that art was a way of expressing himself, rather than doing it in more destructive ways.
What was the process working with Bowie’s archivist? They didn’t put any restrictions on us. They have everything catalogued, so it’s very easy to look through. For the lyrics, we chose some obvious ones like Ziggy Stardust, but also we picked things that showed different working processes. With the Ziggy Stardust notes, there are lyrics, but there are notes about the album where he’s picking out themes, almost like a novelist. For Scary Monsters, there are a lot of lyrical ideas and thematic notes about things he was thinking about.
There’s an interesting set of randomized lyrics generated through a computer program made for Bowie called the Verbisizer. He puts in newspaper headlines, text, sentences, just like Burroughs’ cut-up technique. But I think Bowie uses cut-ups differently than Burroughs. He uses them as a tool to ignite things in his imagination that were there already, whereas I think Burroughs’ technique was very much a type of message.
Was there anything about Bowie’s creative process that surprised you? It’s always fascinating to see these lyrics that are so famous and seem so natural: you can’t imagine them being any other way. You see the crossed-out version of something a bit different. For example, in the song “Five Years,” you see he’s written “the wheels of a tram,” and that’s crossed out and replaced with “the wheels of a Cadillac,” and it’s so much better that it was a Cadillac. And his handwriting ““ it was quite moving to see that process, and makes it human. People have really responded to that. It makes them feel inspired and like they can do it themselves.
This interview has been edited and condensed.