I know that many of you have seen posts similar to this elsewhere, but I swear that I came up with this idea independently (and was chagrined to discover that many others seem to have not only had the same idea, but beat me to the punch).
A few months ago, while I was re-watching Mad Men to prepare for Season 5, which started last month, I decided to jot down all the book references in the series. This could either be books that characters were actually reading (Lady Chatterley's Lover or Exodus), or ones only referenced in the series (Darkness at Noon or The Agony and the Ecstasy).
This is by no means an exhaustive list - I may have missed some along the way.
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There are only a few references that I found in the first season. These mostly reflected books that were popular at the time, such as Peggy getting her hands on a (well worn) copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover from the women in the office. Also, we do see Betty reading Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything, while Don reads Exodus by Leon Uris to help with his pitch for an Israeli tourism contract.
And then we have a personal favourite of mine, with Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Bert Cooper pushes this more than once in the first season. He also implies that he runs in the same circles as she and believes that Rand would love to meet Don, providing one of my favourite Cooper lines: “I’m going to introduce you to Miss Ayn Rand. I think she’ll salivate”.
In the second season, the book references step up a notch in the first episode with Don reading Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency. This season also saw the first references in speech to novels, such as with Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Diamond as Big as the Ritz. That being said, these are the ones which I caught, I am probably missing some others.
Fitzgerald makes another appearance, with his Babylon Revisited: and Other Stories. The season is rounded out with appearances by Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools and Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (which Don tears the final page out of).
In addition, I do believe I saw a Horatio Hornblower book by C. S. Forester and maybe a copy of Melville’s Moby Dick – the latter having a question mark beside it in my notes, making me unsure of whether I saw the white whale or not. The Tarot also makes its appearance when Don is read his fortune by Anna in his first trip to California.
The third season keeps up the literary pace with Grampa Gene having Sally read to him from Gibbons’ classic The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Lane Pryce also sees himself, like Heinlein’s character, as a Stranger in a Strange Land. Mary McCarthy’s The Group also makes an appearance, continuing a trend in the series in which the characters are found reading the bestselling novels of the day.
The ad world in the 60’s was abuzz with David Ogilvy’s Confessions of an Advertising Man. Conrad Hilton is another major individual of the times whose book makes an appearance. I am not sure of the title, but it was either the hard to find Be My Guest, or the even rarer Inspirations of an Innkeeper.
This season sees a book making a direct impact in Don’s work. Ahead of the meeting with the executives from Honda, Don instructs everyone to read Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture. In the end, Don learns something which helps him in his negotiations (don’t want to spoil things for anyone). The first children’s book appeared for me as well, with Sally reading The Clue of the Black Keys, a Nancy Drew mystery.
The fourth season also saw a real life book crossover as Roger Sterling, incensed at the publicity that David Ogilvy was receiving for his work (see above) decides to write his own memoir: Sterling's Gold: Wit & Wisdom of an Ad Man, which was then published both fictionally on the series and in reality in November 2010.
Rounding out my list is John Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, being read by Don in the final episode of the season. This one was very hard to identify on screen. I must have gone through the scene frame by frame several times before my wife was able to decipher the title.
Kudos to her and kudos to Mad Men for including a great reading list in an already excellent show.