10 Books 'Mad Men' Characters Have Read on the Show
For a show about an advertising agency, Mad Men pays special attention to one of the few ad-free cultural outlets: literature. But that’s not entirely true — while books might not contains ads, they act as advertising for readers. The books that Don Draper’s colleagues and family read say as much about them as the clothes they choose to wear or the career paths they go down: We see secretaries in season one passing Lady Chatterly’s Lover between themselves, Bert Cooper praising Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged in season two, and the British (and happy new American) Lane Pryce reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in season three.
Mad Men’s showrunner, Matthew Weiner, is particularly well-known for his attention to detail, and the books he features on the show are no exception. Want proof? Consider one fan theory from the super-sleuths at the New York Public Library. In a season two episode, Betty flirts with a man who briefly mentions the F. Scott Fitzgerald story “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz.” In the next episode, we see her reading Babylon Revisited and Other Stories, the collection in which the story appears. Later, in season four, Betty’s daughter, Sally, is shown reading The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pene Du Bois, a book that comes with an Author’s Note explaining that similarities to “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” are coincidental. As the NYPL points out, it’s likely that including the adult and child version of essentially the same story was intentional.
Here, a few more strategically chosen Mad Men books. Did you pick up on these?
Exodus by Leon Uris
“Babylon” (Season One)
In the first season episode that reveals Roger and Joan’s affair, Don takes a meeting with members of the Israeli Tourism Bureau, who’re looking to make Israel as glamorous and exciting as Rio de Janeiro. For research, one of them gives him Uris’s novel, a bestseller set during the founding of Israel.
Meditations in an Emergency by Frank O’Hara
“For Those Who Think Young” (Season Two)
O’Hara’s 1957 poetry collection is first seen in the season two premiere, “For Those Who Think Young,” when Don sees a young man reading it at a bar. The episode ends with Don reciting the last stanzas of the books final poem (“Now I am quietly waiting for / the catastrophe of my personality / to seem beautiful again” ) and sending the book to a friend (unknown to us) with the note “Made me think of you.”
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
“The Jet Set” (Season Two)
Don visits California in one of Mad Men’s first out of New York episodes and spends the weekend with a mysterious group of jetsetters. He sleeps with the youngest of the group, Joy, who is shown reading The Sound and the Fury in bed. Later, he jots down an address on one of its pages — he’s visiting Anna, the original Don Draper’s wife and his only real friend in the world (and the person Don sent Meditations in an Emergency to). Faulkner’s classic about a dysfunctional family likely speaks to Don’s own fractured upbringing and foreshadows the next leg of his trip.
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon
“My Old Kentucky Home” (Season Three)
Little Sally Draper reads to her Grandpa Gene from Gibbon’s epic historical text, first published during the American Revolution. As Sally wraps up her nightly reading, Gene tells her “You just wait. All hell's gonna break loose.” His warning sets up a tense episode, in which Sally steals $5 from him, and foreshadows the rest of season three, which features the decline and fall of Sterling Cooper and the Draper marriage.
The Group by Mary McCarthy
“The Color Blue” (Season Three)
In this pivotal episode, Betty finally uncovers Don’s secret past life but remains silent and seething as he receives an advertising award. Midway through the show, we see Betty taking a bath and reading Mcarthy’s The Group, a novel about Vassar graduates in the 1930s juggling their desire for independence with the social constraints of the time. In the next episode, Betty confronts Don about his lies — perhaps she gained inspiration from her bathtime book?
The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture by Ruth Benedict
“The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” (Season Four)
Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is trying to land a deal with Honda, but Roger — who fought in World War II — isn’t happy about working with the Japanese company (and even tells the Honda representatives as much). He’s the only one that opposes the potential clients, though; Pete especially embraces them, boning up on Japanese culture by reading Ruth Benedict’s 1946 anthropological text.
The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
“Lady Lazarus” (Season Five)
Pete’s reading again, and this time he’s leafing through Pynchon’s novel on his train ride into Manhattan. His book choice may speak to what’s to come for Pete. The novel follows Oedipa Maas, a housewife about to go on a very strange, surreal journey: Pete begins an affair in this episode with his train friend’s wife, another housewife whose mental illness and electric shock therapy treatments are journeys all their own. We see Pete reading the 1966 novel in the opening shot, and it’s a great companion to the final scene; diehard Mad Men fans will remember that this is the episode where The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” plays before the credits. The Crying of Lot 49 and the song represent huge cultural shifts in the ‘60s, and they bookend this episode nicely.
The Inferno by Dante Alighieri
“The Doorway” (Season Six)
Don reads The Inferno while with Megan in Hawaii; the episode features a voiceover by Don reading these haunting lines: “Midway through our life’s journey I went astray from the straight road and awoke to find myself alone in a dark wood.” In an episode that features a death, a near-death, and an ad pitch that plays on suicidal imagery, it’s no surprise that Don’s reading the ultimate post-life book. It’s also interesting to note how at peace Don seems on his beach vacation in contrast with how destructive his life is when he returns to a snowy winter in New York (Dante’s ninth circle of hell was frozen, after all, not aflame).
The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry
“Man with a Plan” (Season Six)
Ted flies himself and Don to a meeting, and Don pulls out McMurtry’s novel to read after they recover from turbulence. While they’re up in the air, Don’s mistress, Sylvia, is waiting for him in a hotel room. Sylvia’s a lot like The Last Picture Show’s Ruth, both midcentury, unhappy housewives and involved in an adulterous affair.
The American Way of Death by Jessica Mitford
“Field Trip” (Season Seven)
“We can all learn something from the funeral business, “Jim tells Harry. He’s been reading Mitford’s early 1960’s expose on the American funeral industry, which focuses on its outrageous costs and the commercialization of death. A lot of Mad Men fans are betting that Don won’t survive the final season — he’s being made to work in the room that Lane killed himself in, after all — and Jim’s reading material isn’t a convincing argument against fan theories.