The Original Leonard Cohen Reading List

Leonard Cohen’s Reading List is the original and most comprehensive list of books Leonard Cohen read or mentioned favorably.

 

Leonard Cohen On His Reading

 

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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. 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. 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. 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.1

 

 

Leonard Cohen

 

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I would scan somebody’s work – I’m talking about everyone from Homer to A.M. Klein, and I’d see the work in probably a very superficial way, but with a certain kind of hungry eye, and I would seize on things that became very important: a line, two lines, a phrase, a reflection, and that’s what my reading was about, and that’s what my education inv0lved. I never asked for more than three or four things in a guy’s work to speak to me and that was enough for me to fall in love with him. I had no appetite to master his oeuvre, none whatsoever.2

 

Leonard Cohen

 

Leonard’s Reading List

  • Consciousness Speaks by Ramesh S. Balsekar:  “I once asked Leonard if there is a must book to read. Here is the book. If you read it, you do understand him in a different way.” Augenstein Hannot
  • Cocksure by Mordecai Richler: “A wonderful book” Leonard Cohen

  • The Bible: “The Bible was not forced on me, I received it like honey, and I found all the stories equally beautiful, from the Creation to the Apocalypse.”LeonardCohen
    • Isaiah: “I love the Bible and the Book of Isaiah has magnificent language and huge scope and huge optimism. I always loved Isaiah.” Leonard Cohen
    • Psalms: “I like Isaiah … I love the Psalms” Leonard Cohen
  • LA Times (Especially The Crossword): “I take it with a great sense of reverence” Leonard Cohen
  • Blue Beetle, Captain Marvel, Spider-Man & Other Comic Books: The Suppressed Leonard Cohen Influence.
    • Captain Thunder & Superman: Q: You also wanted to be a priest? Leonard Cohen: “At the time I wanted to be a hero-type, Superman, Captain Thunder.
  • Seven Types of Ambiguity by William Empson: “When I was at school there was a book that was very popular called Seven Types of Ambiguity. One of the things it criticized was something called ‘The Author’s Intention.’ You’ve got to discard the author’s intention. It doesn’t matter what the author’s intention in the piece is, or what his interpretation of the piece is, or what his evaluation or estimation of the piece is. It exists independently of his opinions about it.” Leonard Cohen
  • Dalva by Jim Harrison: “I’m reminded of that story I read in Dalva, a novel by Jim Harrison, who is speaking of certain tribes where the white man tried to introduce the mirror, and certain native American tribes refused to accept the mirror. The reason was, they said, that your face is for others to look at.” Leonard Cohen
  • The Stranger by Albert Camus: “I read somewhere that she [Joni Mitchell] felt I had tricked her in some way because I hadn’t told her that Camus had written a book called The Stranger and that I’d written a song called ‘The Stranger.’ The song had nothing to do with the book.” Leonard Cohen
  • Intercourse by Andrea Dworkin: “The whole range of arguments in that book is quite radical and complex and beautiful. It’s the first book I’ve read by an author, masculine or feminine, that has a defiance of the situation, which is deeply subversive in the holy sense – it’s other-worldly. She says that this world is stained by human misconception, that men and women have wrong ideas – even if they are ten million years old and come from the mouth of god, they are still wrong! The position in that book is so defiant and passionate that she creates another reality and just might be able to manifest it. It’s from that kind of appetite, with the way things are that new worlds arise, so I have deep admiration for Andrea Dworkin.” Leonard Cohen
  • I Am That by Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj: “The last book that I really studied was a book called I Am That.” Leonard Cohen
  • The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi) by Hermann Hesse. Magister Ludi was part of the reading list Leonard Cohen gave Joni Mitchell.  “He gave me his reading list, wonderful books: Camus, The Stranger; the I Ching, which I’ve used all my life; Magister Ludi; Siddhartha. A wonderful reading list.” Joni Mitchell
  • Mental Fitness by Michiko Rolek: “This workbook may not solve the Burning Issues of Your Life, but you sure as hell can save yourself a lot of trouble by looking into it…She has made some important matters wonderfully clear, and every page is informed by a sweet concern for the well-being of her reader.” Leonard Cohen
  • Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. Siddhartha was part of the reading list Leonard Cohen gave Joni Mitchell.  “He gave me his reading list, wonderful books: Camus, The Stranger; the I Ching, which I’ve used all my life; Magister Ludi; Siddhartha. A wonderful reading list.” Joni Mitchell
  • Descent into Chaos: The U.S. and the Disaster in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia by Ahmed Rashid: “I was stunned to come across Ahmed’s facebook post, indicating that Leonard Cohen had read Ahmed’s “Descent Into Chaos”, a deeply critical analysis of US foreign policy in the region. From then on, Leonard Cohen songs such as Almost Like the Blues, sang to me singed with a sad reality, knowing that Leonard was so well informed about the detail of issues, when his lyrics appeared to explore them in a more universal fashion.” Klaus Offermann
  • The Bear by William Faulkner: “At the beginning of my first book of poems [Let Us Compare Mythologies], I used a quotation from a short story [The Bear] by William Faulkner” Leonard Cohen
  • Zen Confidential: Confessions of a Wayward Monk by Shozan Jack Haubner: “This punk of a monk, who should be tending to his own affairs, has decided to infect the real world with his tall tales, and worse, to let the cat out of the bag. And what a sly, dangerous, beautiful, foul-smelling, heart-warming beast it is.”
  • The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart: “I loved that book very much, as a wonderful escapist idea. I think you’re kind of stuck with who you are and that’s what you’re dealing with. That’s the hand that you’ve been dealt. To escape from the burden of decision is a delightful notion…but nothing more.” Leonard Cohen
  • Selected Poems by Irving Layton: “There was Irving Layton, and then there was the rest of us….Alzheimer’s could not silence him, and neither will death.” Leonard Cohen
  • Edmund Spenser’s Poetry by Edmund Spenser: Part of Leonard Cohen’s bathroom library
  • American Indian Mythology: Part of Leonard Cohen’s bathroom library

  • Naked Lunch by William Burroughs: “I thought that Naked Lunch was hilarious. It isn’t in my nature to examine consciously the wide implications of a piece of writing. I don’t look at these things in a sociological context, nor even in a literary context. You know, when I find something that makes me laugh I think it’s good.” Leonard Cohen
  • Works Of Robert Herrick: “I’ve loved the minor poets, I mean Herrick, a poet like Herrick, who’s not considered one of the great ornaments of the tradition, but a small gem in the crown.” Leonard Cohen
  • Two Women by Alberto Moravia: Chosen by Leonard Cohen to bring with him on his 1975 travels
  • Essays by Robert Louis Stevenson: “Ever read Stevenson’s essays? He’s great.” Leonard Cohen
  • P. Edouard Lecompte’s Une vierge iroquoise: Catherine Tekakwitha, le lis de bords de la Mohawk et du St. Laurent (1656-1680) (1927); Kateri of the Mohawks by Marie Cecilia Buehrle; Jesuits in North America; Farmer’s Almanac; Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols; Blue Beetle; and Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha: From Leonard Cohen’s Reading List For Beautiful Losers
  • I Ching aka The Book Of Changes: “It’s about the phases of arrangement, holding together, splitting apart and decay all the possible phenomena affecting a given moment of time. The book has been a sort of teacher for me.” Leonard Cohen.  The I Ching was also part of the reading list Leonard Cohen gave Joni Mitchell.  “He gave me his reading list, wonderful books: Camus, The Stranger; the I Ching, which I’ve used all my life; Magister Ludi; Siddhartha. A wonderful reading list.” Joni Mitchell
  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce: Referenced in Leonard Cohen of Montreal: Interview by Michael Benazon. Matrix: Fall, 1986.
  • The Dead (The Dead is the final short story in the 1914 collection Dubliners) by James Joyce: “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.” Leonard Cohen
  • Collected Poems by Federico Garcia Lorca “I was fifteen when I began to read Federico Garcia Lorca. His poems perhaps have had the greatest influence on my texts. He summoned up a world where I felt at home. His images were sensual and mysterious: ‘throw a fist full of ants to the sun.’ I wanted to be able to write something like that as well. A few years ago I wrote a musical adaptation of Lorca’s ‘Little Viennese Waltz.’ Then I noticed what a complex writer he was: it took me more than a hundred hours just to translate the poem. Lorca is one of those rare poets with whom you can stay in love for life.” Leonard Cohen
  • Collected Poems by W.B. Yeats: “As a young man, Yeats spoke to me in a way I could understand. Shakespeare I couldn’t understand, but Yeats I could. It was his subject matter and also I really admired the way he put his personal life on the line.” Leonard Cohen
  • The Guide for the Perplexed by Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (best known as Maimonides): “Even the books that don’t present themselves as songs, like The Guide for the Perplexed, all have that feeling. Whenever people are talking about that thing on how to live or the style with which you move through the world, whenever it gets down to that central thing, it always sounds like a song to me. Anything that highly organized, like the instructions on shoe polish tins – I’ve always liked because it has that life and death sound to it. Anything that has a life and death sound to it is a song.” Leonard Cohen
  • Poems by Humbert Wolfe: “There was a poet named Humbert Wolfe that nobody had ever heard of — his books I discovered in a second-hand bookstore — that I loved through the years.” Leonard Cohen
  • Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh: One of only two novels (the other was Portrait of an Artist) Leonard Cohen could recall from his university course with Hugh MacLennan
  • Myra Breckinridge by Gore Vidal: “I remember reading a book by Gore Vidal, Myra Breckinridge or something, and thinking ‘This whole vision is taken from Beautiful Losers.’ But I don’t know, that might be quite mad. He might never have even seen the book.” Leonard Cohen

Authors Leonard Cohen Read Without Denoting A Specific Work

  • King David, Homer, Dante, Hank Williams, Milton, Dylan, Wordsworth, Randy Newman: “You’re not just talking about Randy Newman, who’s fine, you’re not just talking about Bob Dylan, who’s sublime, you’re talking about King David, you’re talking about Homer, you’re talking about Dante, you’re talking about Milton, you’re talking about Wordsworth, you’re talking about some spirits who are… we haven’t come up for descriptions for their contribution, for their embodiment of our highest possibility. So I don’t think it represents a particularly modest or virtuous assessment of one’s own work to think of oneself as a minor poet.” Leonard Cohen
  • A.M. Klein: “So in A.M. Klein there were a number of songs that really spoke to me” Leonard Cohen
  • Robertson Davies: In a 1988 Danish Broadcasting Corporation interview, Leonard names his favorite writer — Robertson Davies.3
  • Louis Dudek: “Louis Dudek is a legend for me” Leonard Cohen
  • Li Po and Tu Fu: “One of the images I had of myself came from reading Chinese poetry at a very young age. There was a kind of solitary figure in some of those poems by Li Po and Tu Fu. A monk sitting by a stream. There was a notion of solitude, a notion of deep appreciation for personal relationships, friendships, not just love, not just sensual or erotic or the love of a man or a woman, but a deep longing to experience and to describe friendship and loss and the consequences of distance. So those images in those poems had their effect, and thirty years later, I found myself in robes and a shaved head sitting in a meditation hall.” Leonard Cohen
  • Norman Mailer: “I actually recited the poem [‘Dear Mailer’] to [Norman] Mailer with a smile, at some reading where we met up. He didn’t punch me out but he was alarmed. He said, ‘God, don’t publish that. You don’t know that some loony isn’t going to be excited by it and do what you threatened to do.’ It really scared him. I then had second thoughts about the poem because suddenly I saw it from his point of view. Earlier, I saw it as a humorous response to the position he was taking at the time, coming on like a bully. I had a real laugh when I originally wrote it. I then tried to stop its publication but it had already gone to press.” Leonard Cohen
  • Cervantes & Camus: Named by Leonard Cohen among the “writers who influenced him.”

I am republishing selected posts from my former Leonard Cohen site, Cohencentric, here on AllanShowalter.com (these posts can be found at Leonard Cohen).
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  1. Leonard Cohen — Haute Dog by Mr. Bonzai (David Goggin). Music Smarts: July 10, 2010 (archived from 1988). []
  2. Interview with Michael Benazon (Matrix: Fall, 1986) []
  3. Note: I’ve suggested Fifth Business as a representative Robertson Davies novel. []