O’Connell is gently witty, and clearly enjoys riffing on Bowie’s own playfulness – discussing Wyndham Lewis, he writes that he “dropped his first name, Percy, as you would”. A neat idea is O’Connell’s suggested listening, just one track per book, like a wine tasting: a biography of David Bomberg, an artist largely ignored in his lifetime who was rehabilitated almost as soon as he died, should be accompanied by Up the Hill Backwards from 1980’s Scary Monsters; John Braine’s furiously dated Room at the Topgoes with Bowie’s very 1967 confection Love You Till Tuesday; Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies is matched with the decadent, strung-out title track from Aladdin Sane.
O’Connell uses the list as scaffolding for an “alternative biography”, but of course that wasn’t Bowie’s intention. Some of his key texts are absent – no Burroughs, no Brion Gysin, no Aleister Crowley, not nearly enough science fiction – while his fondness for Michael Chabon or Martin Amis tells us nothing much. Sometimes a book is just a good read, even when the reader is David Bowie. Bowie’s Books is therefore tenuously buttressed by phrases such as “might have”, “it’s likely” and “it’s easy to imagine”, along with rib-nudging allusions to Bowie’s lyrics.
Elsewhere Bowie’s literary tastes were puckishly promiscuous, ranging from Vizto the poetry of Hart Crane, and Jack Kerouac to Tom Stoppard. ... There’s also nothing from popular favourites such as Stephen King. “He scares the shit out of me,” Bowie said. However, O’Connell’s splendid book provides plenty of evidence of Bowie’s restless, rummaging intelligence, and his pleasure in the fact that books allow readers to slip into someone else’s skin and try it on for size. Read a science book, he seems to have concluded, and we might get closer to answering questions such as: “Is there life on Mars?” Read a novel and we can be heroes — if just for one day.