Michael Jackson, the bookworm

I saw this news item on Jeffrey St. Claire’s Facebook just as I returned from one of my (at least) twice weekly visits to an old bookshop (with a haul that includes works by Adam Smith, Gramsci, Fromm, Koestler, Steinbeck, C. Wright Mills, Albert Hourani and Eric Hobsbawm–all for a mere £10!). I like browsing for books and I am always heartened when I hear about other kindred spirits since the book reading culture appears to be on fast decline. I didn’t expect Michael Jackson to be one, but Carolyn Kellogg’s piece in the Los Angeles Times suggests otherwise. “Owners of local bookstores, including Dutton’s, recall encountering the late pop star perusing their shelves”, she writes. (Also see Democracy Now’s excellent coverage on Michael Jackson’s life and work).

Michael Jackson buying books
Michael Jackson buying books

When news broke in early 2009 of Michael Jackson’s return to Los Angeles, it was not via reports of him being spotted dining at the Ivy or dancing at the hottest new Hollywood club but book-shopping in Santa Monica.

“He was a longtime and valued customer,” a store representative of art and architecture bookstore Hennessey + Ingalls said Thursday. “We’ll miss him.”

If Jackson’s bookstore appearance surprised his pop fans, it was nothing new for booksellers. A few years ago, Doug Dutton, proprietor of then-popular Dutton’s Books in Brentwood, was at a dinner with people from Book Soup, Skylight and other area bookstores.

“Someone mentioned that Michael Jackson had been in their store,” Dutton said by phone Thursday, “And everybody said he’d shopped in their store too.”

It was the early 1980s when Dutton first saw Jackson, who came in wearing “very large sunglasses.” He had bodyguards with him, but he was solitary and quiet. “There was no display of ‘I’m Michael Jackson,’ ” Dutton recalled. “I don’t remember him actually saying anything.” Each time he shopped at Dutton’s store, he’d buy four or five books.

Brother Dave Dutton got a call in the late ’80s or early ’90s from an assistant, who asked if he’d close his store early so Jackson could shop there alone. “We did close early,” he recalled by phone as his wife Judy and son Dirk discussed Jackson’s visits. “About a quarter to 9 he showed up in a big van,” Dave Dutton said. “Once you got over the initial caution because of those burly guys with him, he was very nice.”

In later years, Jackson would wear a surgical mask during his visits. In an X17 online video of him on New Year’s Eve 2008, in what appears to be Hennessey + Ingalls, he browses for books under a black umbrella, often held by an assistant.

“He loved the poetry section,” Dave Dutton said as Dirk chimed in that Ralph Waldo Emerson was Jackson’s favorite. “I think you would find a great deal of the transcendental, all-accepting philosophy in his lyrics.”

Largely an autodidact, Jackson was quite well read, according to Jackson’s longtime lawyer. “We talked about psychology, Freud and Jung, Hawthorne, sociology, black history and sociology dealing with race issues,” Bob Sanger told the LA Weekly after the singer’s death. “But he was very well read in the classics of psychology and history and literature . . . Freud and Jung — go down the street and try and find five people who can talk about Freud and Jung.”

Hours after his death, Jackson’s 1988 autobiography, “Moonwalk,” despite being out of print, entered the Amazon bestseller list for biography and memoir at No. 25.

“I’ve always wondered if there was a library in Neverland,” Doug Dutton mused. Indeed there was — Sanger told LA Weekly that Jackson’s collection totaled 10,000 books.

And while the seven-bedroom Holmby Hills home that he leased this year had a sunny pool and other luxuries the sunlight-wary Jackson might not have taken advantage of, it also featured something he very well might have: a wood-paneled library.


Author: Idrees Ahmad

I am a Lecturer in Digital Journalism at the University of Stirling and a former research fellow at the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies. I am the author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War (Edinburgh University Press, 2014). I write for The Observer, The Nation, The Daily Beast, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Al Jazeera, Dissent, The National, VICE News, Huffington Post, In These Times, Le Monde Diplomatique, Die Tageszeitung (TAZ), Adbusters, Guernica, London Review of Books (Blog), The New Arab, Bella Caledonia, Asia Times, IPS News, Medium, Political Insight, The Drouth, Canadian Dimension, Tanqeed, Variant, etc. I have appeared as an on-air analyst on Al Jazeera, the BBC, TRT World, RAI TV, Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon, Alternative Radio with David Barsamian and several Pacifica Radio channels.

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