Among the many reasons we’ll be sorry to see the end of Mad Men is the bravura way the writers have woven literary references into the show. Characters have been seen reading books that were popular at the time as well as obscure volumes that explored themes they would have found very meaningful at the time.
We went back through the DVD box-sets, and noted the major titles featured and a few of the more interesting minor ones.
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
Way back in season one, Rand’s objectivism was established as an influence on Don’s character: driven, selfish, and ambitious. The book was recommended to Don by Bert Cooper, and from Don’s confident and egotistical pitch to a client in episode eight, he appears to have taken it to heart.
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
After bedding Joy in season two, Don sees her reading The Sound and the Fury. He asks if it’s good, and she answers that she enjoyed their romp, but the book is only OK. The allusion to this chronicle of a dysfunctional old Southern family dealing with financial and social ruin is obvious.
The Agony and the Ecstacy by Irving Stone
Used as a rather heavy religious metaphor to underline how Peggy is changing her life in the second season.
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon
While Betty’s father lives with the Drapers after his dementia becomes acute, Sally reads this from the Decline and Fall every night. The repeated allegory is a little heavy handed.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carre
Don Draper reading about deception, lies, and intrigue. How... unexpected!
From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne
Roger discusses reading this as a child, while trying to persuade his daughter to leave the hippie commune (season seven). The subtext is evidently meant to point out that Margaret is enjoying a level of freedom and possibility that he did not while growing up -- as if we couldn’t tell that from his three-piece suits.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence
As the book was controversial at the time, the ladies of the office pass it around during the first season.
Meditations in an Emergency by Frank O’Hara
Don reads the poem “Mayakovsky” in season two, illustrating his inner struggles, and proving once again that women love poetry and guys wearing sharp suits.
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
In season seven, Don and Bert discuss on the Road while in the car on Don’s road trip, in case the allusion wasn’t obvious enough.
The Inferno by Dante
Don is given this by Sylvia, a neighbor with whom he was having an affair in season six. He reads the lines “Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood,” showing that though he might have a little self-awareness, that doesn’t mean he’s going to mend his ways.
Babylon Revisited and Other Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Betty Draper developed a taste for Fitzgerald after flirting with a young man who recommends she reads “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz.” We assume we should read Don as the patriarch in that story, who had everything he could want, but was never happy. We suspect Betty saw the parallel.
-- Incidentally, a couple of seasons later, Betty’s daughter Sally is seen reading The Twenty-One Balloons by William Péne du Bois, which is basically the same story as “The Diamond as Big….” It’s a subtle joke that both mother and daughter are thinking the same thing.
The Milk and Honey Route: A Handbook for Hobos by Dean Stiff
Name-checked in the title of the penultimate episode, this humorous guide to the hobo life has been featured a couple of times in Mad Men.
Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth
Season seven sees an emasculated Don reading Philip Roth’s breakout success at the office, as reading is one of the few things he hasn’t been banned from doing. This symbolism is getting a bit heavy-handed.
After seven seasons, there are simply too many allusions and references to list them all. A librarian at the NYPL has been maintaining a great list here…
What to do after Mad Men is finished? Well, you could read a couple of books set in the same era and which provide insight into the world of advertising:
David Ogilvy, Confessions of an Advertising Man
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson
So, did we leave your favorite books off this list? What other books did they feature that we didn't include? Let us know below...