Paging through the reading choices of 'Mad Men' characters



I love "Mad Men."

It's one of the best shows on television right now.

The writing is so good, it's not like watching TV — it's like watching a novel come to life.

Deservedly, AMC's "Mad Men" won Best Writing and Best Drama at the Emmy Awards Sunday.

The 1960s-era show is painstakingly detailed and meticulously crafted and period-exact — from the fitted suits and pencil skirts, to the scotch glass and lit cigarette in every manicured hand, right down to the books the characters read.

When Don isn't drinking or picking up women, when Betty isn't riding horses or yelling at Sally, and when the crew at Sterling Cooper Draper Price isn't pitching to Lucky Strike or London Fog, they're often reading books.

Books that give us insight into their characters and situations.

So this week, let's take a look at the books of "Mad Men."

If you're just starting the series, there may be a few little details you'd rather not know, so here's your official Spoiler Alert. Ardent fans, dive in.

Don Draper is two things: an ad man and a ladies' man.

When he wants to know what women want, he picks up Rona Jaffe's "The Best of Everything" (1958), which he reads in bed one night next to Betty.

Jaffe's book was the era's version of chick lit, a "Sex in the City"-esque story about five young career girls in New York City. It was so juicy, it was made into an ABC soap opera of the same name in 1970.



When Don needs to pitch to the Israeli Board of Tourism, he reads Leon Uris' "Exodus" (1958).

"Exodus" is historical fiction, a book about the founding of the State of Israel through a love story. It became popular in 1960 due to the film version starring Paul Newman.

Two episodes ago, the agency was readying to pitch to the Japanese businessmen of Honda. Don orders Joan to put a copy of "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword," by Ruth Benedict on everyone's desk. We see him reading it in bed later on.

"Chrysanthemum" was an influential 1946 study of Japan written by anthropologist Benedict for the U.S. Office of War Information in order to understand and predict the behavior of the Japanese in World War II. Although it's been heavily criticized for being biased, the book was influential in shaping American ideas about Japanese culture at the time.

The Season 2 finale was titled "Meditations in an Emergency," after Frank O'Hara's 1957 collection of poetry with the same name.

Don sees a man in a bar reading the book, and asks him how it is. "You probably wouldn't like it," the man says. But Don buys it, and we later see him reading it in his office. The episode concludes with Don's voiceover reading the fourth and final part of O'Hara's poem, "Mayakovsky":

"Now I am quietly waiting for / the catastrophe of my personality / to seem beautiful again, / and interesting, and modern."



O'Hara (1926-1966) was a key member of the New York School of Poetry. His poetry is largely regarded as speaking to the chaos and cultural changes of the 1950s and '60s in America.

Betty Draper: bitter divorcée, bored housewife, frustrated mother.



When Arthur, the handsome young rider from Betty's equestrian club, suggests "A Diamond as Big as the Ritz," by F. Scott Fitzgerald, she rushes off to read it.

"Diamond" is a fabulous 1922 novella about a John T. Unger, a teenage boy at a private boarding school, and his mysteriously quiet roommate, Percy Washington. Percy tells John that his owns a diamond "bigger than the Ritz-Carlton Hotel." It turns out to be amazingly true. The action starts there.



We also see Betty read "Ship of Fools," by Katherine Anne Porter (1962). It was the best-selling novel in America that year; it tells the story of a group of passengers on a ship sailing from Mexico to Germany. But it's also an allegory for the rise of Nazism.

In Season 3, we see Betty read "The Group," by Mary McCarthy (1963). It would have been just released that year and on The New York Times Best-sellers list.

McCarthy's juicy but controversial novel is the story of a group of young women in New York City, and treated frowned-upon topics for the time, i.e., premarital sex, homosexuality, contraception and abortion.



And then there's Joan. Joanie. Red. The Marilyn Monroe of Sterling Cooper Draper Price.

What else would the voluptuous office manager read than D.H. Lawrence's 1928 novel "Lady Chatterley's Lover"?

The book was banned in many countries for being pornographic. In 1959, its publisher took the case to the Supreme Court, which unanimously decided the book did have redeeming social value, despite its explicit sexual content.

When Joan read it in 1960, it would have just been declared "legal" — but with a stigma.



When Peggy asked to borrow the book, another secretary warns her not to read it on the train because "it will attract the wrong element."

Shoeless Bert Cooper, office eccentric, urges everyone to read Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" (1957).

In Season 1, Bert tells Don: "You are a productive and reasonable man, and in the end, completely self-interested."

He urges Don to buy a copy of "Atlas Shrugged," which preaches Rand's philosophy of Objectivism — that the moral purpose of one's life is the pursuit of one's own happiness and self-interest.

The yin to Cooper's yang is silver fox and professional drunk, Roger Sterling. He criticizes David Ogilvy's "Confessions of an Advertising Man," quipping to Don that it should be titled "1,000 Reasons I'm So Great."

The British ad man Ogilvy (1911-99) was the voice on advertising in the 1960s. His books were full of mantras and Ogilvy-isms, like "In the modern world of business, it is useless to be a creative, original thinker unless you can also sell what you create."

I wonder what Draper would say about that.

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Has anyone read any of these? I haven't read any except Atlas Shrugged, but I would love to read Lady Chatterley's Lover, Ship Of Fools, The Group, and The Best of Everything (I saw the movie version of this w/the amazing and fierce Suzy Parker... it was crazy as hell). Mad Men book club, anyone? If you've noticed any other books on the show, feel free to mention in the comments.

Oh, and you can read Lady Chatterley's Lover in full online here

"I can see why it got banned."