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David Bowie’s 100 Favorite Books, the CounterPunch Connection

Back in 2013, David Bowie posted a list of his 100 favorite books to his Facebook page. A couple of days ago a mutual friend told me that Bowie was at least partially inspired to do this after having read the lists that Alexander Cockburn and I concocted (with vicious internal debates) our of 100 favorite books: non-fiction in English, nonfiction in translation, fiction in English and fiction in translation.

This revelation came as a nice surprise, but it was not entirely shocking. Bowie had been an irregular correspondent to the CounterPunch inbox since he came across the “charming” (Bowie’s word) photo spread of Alex in drag published in Ben Sonnenberg’s Grand Street magazine many years ago.

Over a decade, we received seven or eight random notes from Bowie. Mostly he wrote to Alex, which was ironic since Cockburn was immune to Bowie’s music. I’m not sure Alex could have named more than five Bowie songs and their burgeoning pen-pal relationship didn’t inspire him to add Hunky Dory or Station to Station to his sprawling vinyl collection in Petrolia.

Still, they had a few things in common. Bowie told Alex that he was an admirer of Alex’s father, Claud Cockburn, whose novels he had read. Bowie said he particularly liked  Ballantyne’s Folly, which pleased Alex because most people who wrote him about Claud’s work only mentioned that they’d read Beat the Devil  (and had probably only watched the John Huston film).

Bowie said that he was particularly fond of Claud’s writing in Private Eye, the savage British political and satirical magazine, which the musician included on his list of essential reading. He also won favor by telling Alex that he’d been an avid reader of Cockburn and Ridgeway’s Press Clips column in the Village Voice, but had lost track of him after he started writing for The Nation. Then along came the Web and the vast reach of CounterPunch.

These messages never engaged explicitly in politics, either here or in Britain. Mainly the Starman’s notes, most very short and curt, referenced music, figures in the Cockburn orbit (Sally Bowles, Christopher Isherwood, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Olivia Wilde), New York in the 70s and London in 60s. A couple of terse Bowie squibs were aimed in my direction, mostly to reprove me for my writing on music (“too cruel, man, give the bands a chance”), though he did compliment me on my profile of the blues genius Willie Dixon. “Fine writing about a hard life,” he wrote.

It’s hard to get much of a fix on Bowie’s politics (about which there had been much speculation since his flirtation with the proto-fascists in the British nationalist movement) from his reading list. Ranging from the Iliad (Richmond Lattimore translation) to Spike Mulligan’s Puckoon, Bowie’s choices are eclectic but not truly eccentric. In fact, I was struck by how conventional most of the books are, one might even be tempted to say straight and stuffy. For such a quick-change artist, Bowie’s favorite writers are predominately white, male (only 12 women by my count) and fervently anti-Communist (Koestler, Burgess, Bulgakov, Wolf, Figes, Orwell twice and Ginzberg).

The list features a few old friends of  CounterPunch: Greil Marcus, Ed Sanders,  Howard Zinn and Julian Jaynes; a few enemies, notably Christopher Hitchens and George Orwell, who had snitched out Claud Cockburn (along side many others) to British secret police in the late 1940s; and a couple of oddities, including the ludicrous Camille Paglia and ZanoniBulger-Lytton’s whacko 1842 novel on the Rosicrucians.

I was thrilled to see that Lawrence Weschler’s excellent book on the Museum of Jurassic Technology made the cut, since this is one CounterPunch’s favorite museums in Los Angeles and Alex had recommended, rather cheekily, years ago that Bowie make a visit “the next time you play the Whiskey A Go-Go.” Who knows if Bowie actually ventured down Venice Blvd. to the Palms District to view the museum’s strange collection, but he apparently read the book.

Bowie’s list is perhaps most notable for what’s missing: there are very few volumes on philosophy, anthropology, architecture, fashion, design, film, economics, critical theory, art history, science fiction, horror, noir, or natural history. One might ask (Cockburn certainly would have), what about the Irish? No Beckett, no Joyce, no Flann or even Edna O’Brien? And, surprisingly for the man who wrote “Jean Genie,” there’s no Jean Genet? (Perhaps I’ve been mistaken about what that song was referencing all these years).

Still it’s a highly literate and very respectable bookshelf. Perhaps too respectable. Here at CounterPunch, we’re delighted to have played even a small part in sparking it’s creation.

1. Interviews With Francis Bacon by David Sylvester
2. Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse
3. Room at the Top by John Braine
4. On Having No Head by Douglass Harding
5. Kafka Was the Rage by Anatole Broyard
6. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
7. City of Night by John Rechy
8. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
9. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
10. Iliad by Homer

11. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
12. Tadanori Yokoo by Tadanori Yokoo
13. Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin
14. Inside the Whale and Other Essays by George Orwell
15. Mr. Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood
16. Hall’s Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art by James A. Hall
17. David Bomberg by Richard Cork
18. Blast by Wyndham Lewis
19. Passing by Nella Larsen
20. Beyond the Brillo Box by Arthur C. Danto

21. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes
22. In Bluebeard’s Castle by George Steiner
23. Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd
24. The Divided Self by R. D. Laing
25. The Stranger by Albert Camus
26. Infants of the Spring by Wallace Thurman
27. The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf
28. The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin
29. Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter
30. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

31. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
32. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
33. Herzog by Saul Bellow
34. Puckoon by Spike Milligan
35. Black Boy by Richard Wright
36. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
37. The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea by Yukio Mishima
38. Darkness At Noon by Arthur Koestler
39. The Waste Land by T.S. Elliot
40. McTeague by Frank Norris

41. Money by Martin Amis
42. The Outsider by Colin Wilson
43. Strange People by Frank Edwards
44. English Journey by J.B. Priestley
45. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
46. The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West
47. 1984 by George Orwell
48. The Life and Times of Little Richard by Charles White
49. Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age of Rock by Nik Cohn
50. Mystery Train by Greil Marcus

51. The Beano by DC Comics
52. Raw Comics Anthology edited by Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly
53. White Noise by Don DeLillo
54. Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom by Peter Guralnick
55. Silence: Lectures And Writing by John Cage
56. Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews edited by Malcolm Cowley
57. The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll by Charlie Gillete
58. Octobriana and the Russian Underground by Peter Sadecky
59. The Street by Ann Petry

60. Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon
61. Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby, Jr.
62. A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn
63. The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby
64. Metropolitan Life by Fran Lebowitz
65. The Coast of Utopia by Tom Stoppard
66. The Bridge by Hart Crane
67. All the Emperor’s Horses by David Kidd
68. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
69. Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess
70. The 42nd Parallel by John Dos Passos

71. Tales of Beatnik Glory by Ed Sanders
72. The Bird Artist by Howard Norman
73. Nowhere to Run: The Story of Soul Music by Gerri Hirshey
74. Before The Deluge by Otto Friedrich
75. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence From Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson by Camille Paglia
76. The American Way Of Death by Jessica Mitford
77. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
78. Lady Chatterly’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence
79. Teenage: the Prehistory of Youth Culture by Jon Savage

80. Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
81. The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard
82. The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
83. Viz Comics founded by Chris Donald
84. Private Eye Magazine edited by Ian Hislop
85. Selected Poems by Frank O’Hara
86. The Trial of Henry Kissinger by Christopher Hitchens
87. Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes
88. Maldodor by Comte de Lautréamont
89. On the Road by Jack Kerouac

90. Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders by Lawrence Weschler
91. Zanoni by Edward Bulwer-Lytton
92. Transcendental Magic, Its Doctine and Ritual by Eliphas Lévi
93. The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels
94. The Leopard by Giusseppe Di Lampedusa
95. Inferno by Dante Alighieri
96. A Grave for a Dolphin by Alberto Denti di Pirajno
97. The Insult by Rupert Thomson
98. In Between the Sheets by Ian McEwan
99. A People’s Tragedy by Orlando Figes
100. Journey Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg