Ian Curtis is one of the most iconic figures in the history of alternative British music and his tragic story is one that is still devastatingly sad 40 years on. His presence is felt still to this day and his expert use of lyrics within Joy Division is what sets him apart as one of the finest songwriters of a generation.
Despite being just 23-years-old when he died by suicide, Curtis was a figure who was smart beyond his years and immersed himself in literature which became like an addiction to him. His favourite books played an extensive part in his life within the band as well as offering an insight into the man behind the music.
From an early age, Curtis was always obsessed with reading and was an intelligent child, one who had a love of poetry, a command of which he grabbed hold of very quickly. He was awarded a scholarship at the age of 11 at Macclesfield’s independent King’s School and it was here where he developed his interests in philosophy, literature, and eminent poets such as Thom Gunn. While at King’s School, he was awarded several scholastic awards in recognition of his abilities, where he was the star pupil — especially at the ages of around 15 to 16.
This love of literature gave him such a way with words that he was captivated by the art of lyric-writing and found a particular fondness for David Bowie. It was the kind of love for literature he would be able to express with Joy Division and that allowed him to paint a picture with complete morbid elegance.
It was a huge reason why the band resonated so greatly with people on the outside of the mainstream. Curtis wasn’t a great storyteller, per se, largely avoiding linear narrative song structures for the novelists of this world. But few writers could provoke such visceral and raw emotions from fans.
Those fans felt a strong connection with the group thanks, in no small part, to the openness of the singer’s lyricism which was so distinctly different to anybody else that was around.
Robert Smith from The Cure once perfectly recalled the raw emotion he felt when he first listened to Curtis: ‘I remember hearing Closer [Joy Division’s second and final album] for the first time and thinking, ‘I can’t ever imagine making something as powerful as this. I thought I’d have to kill myself to make a convincing record’.”
As it was helping him with his songwriting process, Curtis went from reading for joy to becoming reliant on books for inspiration. Soon enough, reading became a work-related task that he grew to loathe. His widow Deborah later recalled that with his reading there “an indication to me that he considered them part of his work. They were important to him.”
She then added: “It wasn’t something he did as relaxation or for pleasure. He was studying/working. Too important to try and concentrate on with someone else in the room. It wasn’t something he did as relaxation or for pleasure. His books would be on the floor next to his drafts.”
In her memoir, Touching from a Distance, Deborah Curtis recalled “most nights Ian would go into the blue room and shut the door behind him to write, interrupted only by cups of coffee handed through the swirls of Marlboro smoke. I didn’t mind the situation: we regarded it as a project, something that had to be done.”
Ian Curtis was truly an all or nothing character and his obsession with literature was a microcosmic way of viewing the way in which he threw himself at everything that he cared about.
Following his tragic death, Deborah Curtis shared a list of the books which he read while they wear together which offer up a fascinating look into what helped inspire and shape those two treasured Joy Division records — check it out below.
Joy Division’s Ian Curtis’ favourite 32 books:
- Adrian Henri, Environments And Happenings
- Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
- Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange
- Antonin Artaud, The Theatre And Its Double
- Arthur Rimbaud, A Season In Hell
- Arthur Rimbaud, Illuminations
- Dawn Ades, Dada And Surrealism
- Franz Kafka, In The Penal Colony
- Franz Kafka, The Castle
- Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist
- Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
- Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight Of The Idols
- Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Great Short Works Of Fyodor Dostoevsky
- Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes From Underground
- Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Idiot
- Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf
- Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game
- J.G. Ballard, High–rise
- J.G. Ballard, The Atrocity Exhibition
- Jean–paul Sartre, Nausea
- John Heartfield, Photomontages Of The Nazi Period
- John Wilcock, The Autobiography And Sex Life Of Andy Warhol
- Ka–tzetnik 135633 [Yehiel De–nur], The House Of Dolls
- Michael Green, The Art Of Coarse Acting
- New Worlds [British Science Fiction Magazine] Nik Cohn, Rock Dreams: Under The Boardwalk
- Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls
- Oscar Wilde, The Complete Works Of Oscar Wilde
- Selected Poems By Thom Gunn & Ted Hughes
- Various, A Century Of Thrillers: From Poe To Arlen
- William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch
- William S. Burroughs, The Third Mind
- William S. Burroughs, The Wild Boys