Reader Reader: The Bowie Book Club

Discover David Bowie’s 100 favorite books.

david bowie

When David Bowie died in 2016, his fans paid tribute by covering his songs, sharing stories about him, and painting his album covers and artistic incarnations on murals. Two of his fans, Kristianne Huntsburger and Greg Miller, honored his memory in a more literary way. 

“We were commiserating over drinks,” Huntsburger recalled in a recent interview. “We looked at his book list and were surprised by how many of the books we never heard of, and we decided to start reading through them as a challenge.” The result became their podcast, The Bowie Book Club.

The list of Bowie’s 100 favorite books—which was included in the museum exhibition “David Bowie Is”—is an eclectic assortment that reflects his omnivorous approach to music and culture. Classic novels like The Master and Margarita and Madame Bovary are shelved alongside nonfiction travel books like The Songlines, plus underground comics, Russian propaganda, biographies, dictionaries, and at least one volume of what Miller describes as “bad teenage goth poetry.” 

Related: 10 Modern and Classic Russian Books Everyone Should Read

Reading through the list has given Huntsburger and Miller insights into their subject’s creative process. Savvy fans know that George Orwell’s 1984 inspired the totalitarian imagery of Bowie’s 1974 album Diamond Dogs, but reading The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea gave the podcasters a new perspective on songs like “Blackout,” whose lyrics feature imagery from Mishima’s novel. Miller also mentions that “there’s a song on Blackstar that uses Nadsat,” the language from Anthony Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange. “You can see a really clear influence there.”

Want to read like David Bowie? Noting the depth and breadth of his book list, Miller suggests that readers “go to the bookstore and pick a hundred books randomly and read them!” For casual readers who want a nudge in the right direction, Huntsburger and Miller selected five books that Bowie fans might want to add to their queue. 

nights at the circus, one of david bowie's favorite books

Nights at the Circus

By Angela Carter

Miller describes this book as “the most novelly novel” on the list, making it a good point of entry for curious readers. This picaresque follows the adventures of the circus performer Sophie Fevvers, who is rumored to be part swan on the basis of her large, fully operational wings. 

American journalist Jack Walser joins Colonel Kearney’s circus on a whirlwind tour to London, St. Petersburg, and Siberia to find out if the celebrated Fevvers is who she claims to be. The book was widely acclaimed on its publication in 1984 and has made several must-read lists—including the BBC’s 100 Novels that Shaped Our World—and with good reason. “It’s a thoroughly entertaining book,” Miller says. 

before the deluge, one of david bowie's favorite books

Before the Deluge

By Otto Friedrich

Berlin looms large in the music of David Bowie; he retreated to the German capitol in the late 1970s to detox from drug addiction, and conceived of his greatest artistic era while living in the city. The 1920s Weimar era, when Berlin was briefly seen as a place of social and sexual liberation for the German people, was a huge inspiration to the singer. 

Otto Friedrich’s cultural history of the Weimar era covers Berlin from many different angles, looking at the scientific and artistic innovations that unfolded during that time with the same attention and care that he gives to Germany’s precarious postwar government and financial depression. For Huntsburger, the tome “filled in a lot of big history gaps that I had in the period of Weimar-era Germany.”

berlin alexanderplatz, one of david bowie's favorite books

Berlin Alexanderplatz

By Alfred Döblin

Like Before the Deluge, Berlin Alexanderplatz is an expansive look back on the Weimar era. Unlike Friedrich’s book, this one is a fictional narrative. When World War I veteran Franz Biberkopf is released from a prison term for manslaughter, his return to the neighborhood of the title kicks off a series of events among his neighbors and acquaintances. 

Written in 1929, the book depicts the casual xenophobia of pre-Third Reich Berlin in a shockingly casual manner—as with the fate of a biracial American who marries into a family that lives on the Alexanderplatz—but grounds the more regressive attitudes in the Depression that Germany experienced in the years after WWI. 

While Berlin Alexanderplatz is considered a modernist classic, a dodgy English translation from the 1930s made it rough going to many potential readers; even Huntsburger, who “loves” the book, “hadn’t heard of it before this list.” The 2018 translation from New York Review of Books has made Berlin Alexanderplatz more accessible to a new generation. 

Related: 8 Lost Masterpieces from NYRB Classics

the street ann petry

The Street

By Ann Petry

Huntsburger was “really happy to learn about” this book, an early bestseller by a Black woman author. Protagonist Lutie Johnson has what looks like a happy and stable home life, but when she learns her husband has been cheating on her, she moves out of their home and takes her son, Bub, to live in Harlem. 

While Lutie wants to believe in the American Dream, she frequently experiences racist incidents—whether microaggressions or full-blown bigotry—as she looks for a job and a place to live. Describing the book as “a heartrending but beautiful novel,” Huntsburger sees parallels between The Street and fraught-yet-defiant songs like “A Better Future.”

hacksmoor, one of david bowie's favorite books


By Peter Ackroyd

For his final pick, Miller chose “a really entertaining mystery that has occult overtones”. Hawksmoor time-travels between London in the 19th century and the Thatcher era as detectives Nicholas Hawksmoor and Christopher Wren investigate seven brutal murders at churches built by architect Nicholas Dyer. While researching these parishes, the detectives learn that Dyer practiced Satanism, and that the churches house some horrifying secrets within their foundations. 

Bowie had cited Hawksmoor as an influence on 1. Outside, but until the past few years, American audiences didn’t have ready access to the book. When Bowie’s son Duncan Jones announced Hawksmoor as the inaugural title in his Bowie read-a-long on Twitter, demand for the title was so great that it was finally brought back into print in the US. Behold the power of David Bowie.