Yesterday, when we discovered David Bowie had died, my friends and I reflected on what he meant to our lives. You only have to give social media the faintest glance to see how revered he was as an artist and role model.
I have various memories of Bowie. I remember listening to “Space Oddity” while lying on my bed and feeling just like Major Tom. (Or as a rural Alabama girl imagined Major Tom would feel.) I sat in a group of philosophical college students who discussed the lyrics of “Changes” and the deep meaning behind Bowie’s change of a word from one stanza to the next. I danced to “Fame,” “Golden Years,” and “Let’s Dance.” I still have “Suffragette City” on my iPod running playlist. And like just about everyone else, I longed to be a hero “if just for one day.”
Still, I realized yesterday after reading my friends’ posts about what Bowie meant to them, he and I had had a much more distant relationship. Perhaps I realized early on that David Bowie was smart. I mean, really, really smart. And I was never going to truly understand him. So I kept my distance.
That feeling was reinforced when Bowie put his hundred favorite books on his Facebook page in 2013. I glanced over it and didn’t recognize the first few titles I saw and moved on to something else.
But yesterday, two colleagues were making an exhibit out of those books, and I took a second look. While I had only read seventeen of those books, this time, I felt more kinship with him. Sure, for a couple of the books we’d both read, I’m pretty sure he understood them and used them for his art while I was simply in an undecipherable word bog, counting how many pages until the torture ended. It was clear that he was not a lover of the Victorians. No Dickens. No Eliot. No Bronte. These are the writers I adore. He preferred the dense, the highly metaphorical, Don DeLillo over Jane Austen. But in other cases, our reading worlds intersected.
For example, outside of graduate school, he was the only person I’d heard of who had not only read Ann Petry’s The Street, but apparently liked it as much as I did. And then there was Dante’s Inferno, a book I had come to just this past year, which spoke to me deeply about my life and my choices. And he liked McTeague by Frank Norris, a choice that my fellow literature students ridiculed, but a book I found absolutely fascinating. We both liked The Great Gatsby, Madame Bovary, and As I Lay Dying.
Somehow the books we didn’t have in common did not seem as important as the ones we did. And I like to imagine him thinking of a way to work the symbolism of McTeague’s gilded tooth into a song and perhaps even chuckling about how no one would ever understand it.
Goodbye, David Bowie. You were a true Renaissance man. And we may never see your like again.