Credit: Pieter Morlion

From James Joyce to Hermann Hesse: 15 of Leonard Cohen’s favourite books of all time

As we’re all searching for something to fill our time during lockdown, with a winter of long nights and short days ahead, many people have turned to their dusty bookshelves for some wholesome entertainment and retreading the hallways of their own personal libraries. If you’re stuck for inspiration on what to read next then the late, great Leonard Cohen has a perfect reading list.

Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, distinguished poet and respected novelist, Leonard Cohen was always going to be a writer. Cohen drew inspiration from sexuality, romance, relationships, politics and religion among other things and, most notably, he delivered his own personal take on the aforementioned topics. Cohen was a modern renaissance man and has always championed the power rof the written word.

The iconic Canadian artist often recoiled into isolation, taking with him music and reading material of all forms, using them as shields from the modern society that threatened to swallow him up. He once said: “Every time I pick up a magazine, I read some writing that is distinguished. My pace and viewpoint is being influenced continually by things I come across. You recapitulate the whole movement of your own culture.” Cohen saw reading as a way of escapism and essential for development.

Cohen, more so than most singers, understood the art of language and could find the beauty of all forms of literature. “Occasionally we are touched by certain elaborate language, like the language we associate with the Elizabethan period, with the King James translation of The Bible, or Shakespeare,” he continued.

“In certain moments you are influenced by very simple things. The instructions on a cereal package have a magnificent clarity. You’re touched by the writing in National Geographic — it represents a certain kind of accomplishment.”

The singer continued: “Occasionally you move into another phase where you are touched by the writing of demented people or mental patients. I get a lot of letters from those kinds of writers. You begin to see it as the most accurate kind of reflection of your own reality, the landscape you’re operating on. There are many kinds of expression that I’m sensitive to.”

Prior to his death in 2016 at the age of 82, Cohen was reading prolifically at his home in Los Angeles. In an interview a few years earlier, he was asked if he could name some of the books that have stayed true to him over his life. It makes for a truly inspirational reading list form one of the greatest literary minds in music.

Leonard Cohen’s favourite books:

  • The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi) by Hermann Hesse
  • Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
  • Dubliners by James Joyce
  • Selected Poems by Irving Layton
  • Collected Poems by Federico Garcia Lorca
  • I Am That by Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj
  • Two Women by Alberto Moravia
  • Descent into Chaos: The U.S. and the Disaster in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia by Ahmed Rashid
  • The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart
  • Mental Fitness by Michiko Rolek
  • Edmund Spenser’s Poetry by Edmund Spenser
  • Essays by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Poems by Humbert Wolfe
  • Collected Poems by W.B. Yeats

When detailing Dubliners, by James Joyce, Cohen offered: “That paragraph. It’s not the work of an author, but maybe five lines. It’s those five lines that will get me reluctantly to explore the rest of the guy’s work. But that paragraph I’ve never forgotten. There’s that paragraph ‘Snow was general all over Ireland.’ It described the snow. It’s Montreal. It’s our snow, our black iron gates in Montreal. It was perfect.”

In the same conversation, Cohen described Irving Layton as “one of the finest writers in language.”

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