From a young age, rock poet and troubadour Leonard Cohen knew he wanted to be a writer. In fact, it wasn’t till after finding little financial success as a novelist in the ’50s and early ’60s that he decided, at 33, to move to the States and try his hand at folk music. After a wildly successful, decades-long recording career, Cohen passed away in 2016 at the age of 82, revered as much for his literary legacy as his contributions to music.

While classic poetry and the Bible were early and lasting influences, Cohen has also cited Camus, comic books and mindfulness and meditation guides as formative reads. On being inspired by the gamut of human language – from the Elizabethan Bible to the writings of mental patients – he 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. 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.”

Gathered from the interview archives at Cohencentric, read on for a list of Leonard Cohen’s book commendations. Complement with the reading lists of Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Nick Cave and Patti Smith.


The Bible (also rec’d by Carl SaganMartin Luther King Jr., Nick CaveMaya Angelou)

“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.” -LC

The I Ching

Blue Beetle (comic)

Consciousness Speaks by Ramesh S. Balsekar

The Stranger by Albert Camus (also rec’d by David Bowie & Philip Seymour Hoffman)

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.” -LC

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.” -LC

The Bear by William Faulkner

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.” -LC

The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi) by Hermann Hesse (also rec’d by Patti Smith)

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce (also rec’d by Susan Sontag)

Dubliners by James Joyce (also rec’d by Ernest Hemingway)

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.” -LC

Selected Poems by Irving Layton

“One of the finest writers in language.” -LC

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.” -LC

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

“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.” -LC

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.” -LC

Edmund Spenser’s Poetry by Edmund Spenser

Essays by Robert Louis Stevenson

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.” -LC

Collected Poems by W.B. Yeats

(via Cohencentric)

Categories: Musicians Writers

One comment

Leonard Cohen’s Reading List

Leave a Reply