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Curator Geoffrey Marsh on David Bowie’s reading habits

Books from Bowie’s collection

David Bowie Is, the touring exhibition from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, is perhaps the closest mere humans will get to the notoriously elusive Ziggy Stardust.

The staggering two-floor show, which officially opened last night at the Art Gallery of Ontario, showcases 300 objects from Bowie’s personal archive of more than 75,000 costumes, sheet music, books, and other memorabilia.

The exhibition’s audio guide features an interview with Bowie in which he says that, if he hadn’t become a musician, he “would have written novels,” referring to his songs as “little stories set to music.” Bowie’s magpie approach to art has always been influenced by books, according to exhibition co-curator Geoffrey Marsh, director of the V&A’s department of theatre and performance, who provided Q&Q with a compendium of 100 titles recommended by Bowie (download the PDF here). The list includes a few surprises, such as Michael Chabon’s 2005 novel, Wonder Boys, and Howard Norman’s 2004 Newfoundland-set novel, The Bird Artist.

Prior to the opening, Q&Q spoke to Marsh about Bowie and his books.

How would you describe Bowie’s relationship to literature? David is a voracious reader. I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s been said that he reads a book a day. He certainly rings up people nowadays and says, I’ve read this and that. He’s fascinated with ideas and fascinated that there’s so much stuff out there that most people don’t get access to. I think he has a desperate urge to connect people to all this extraordinary art, culture, and writing.

Was he a reader growing up? He grew up with a very ordinary background and a very ordinary school. Fortunately, he had Peter Frampton’s father as his art teacher but apart from that, he left school at 16. There’s a great bit in the exhibition that describes when he used to travel around on the Underground as a teenager, he would always go and buy a book, something with a pretentious title on it. He’d carry it in his pocket so he’d look really cool “ this was during the period of French existentialism. After a while, he actually started reading them.

Bowie lists three Orwell titles in his top-100 list of books: Inside the Whale and Other Essays, The Road to Wigan Pier, and Nineteen Eighty-Four

Who were some of his key influences? People like J.G. Ballard, the science-fiction writer who had this concept of astronauts in inner space. Many people think Bowie is writing about outer space but he wasn’t interested in that at all. He was growing up with the feeling in the mid-1960s that you could start exploring your own mind through drugs – LSD was legal until 1966 in Britain – sex, or Eastern religions. It was an extraordinary period of experimentation, trying to get inside people’s minds about who they were and what they could be.

How did you compile the book list? That was a list we got from his archivist. In the archive, there are massive numbers of books that he’s kept. Supposedly, when he went to the desert to make The Man Who Fell to Earth, he took a trunk of books with him.

Will this list help fans better understand Bowie? The idea that he sits down and reads every book cover to cover, I don’t think that’s what he does. I think he’s more interested in ideas – and what he’s really interested in is how he can rework those ideas. He is the ultimate postmodernist, sampling stuff even before postmodernism arrived. I don’t think it’s a direct connection to him. It’s much more complicated.

A frame from a Rolling Stone cover shoot with Bowie and William S. Burroughs (coloured by Bowie)

Has there been a definitive book written about Bowie? There are a huge number of books being written about Bowie, but it’s astonishing how they all say the same old stuff and how many of them are filled with mistakes. Very few of them, for instance, cover the fact that he learned how to act in the late 1960s. That’s what made him so different. Lots of actors dress up in funny clothes, but the idea of acting as a process is rare. He has this total understanding of how performance works.