The Best Books On American Pop Culture

By Maureen Callahan

The Books I Picked & Why

The National Enquirer: Thirty Years of Unforgettable Images

By Editors of National Enquirer

The National Enquirer: Thirty Years of Unforgettable Images

Why this book?

As a child, I loved my grandmother’s visits because she would bring all the tabloids I wasn’t allowed to read — and none was better than The National Enquirer. No other outlet reveled so gleefully in scandal: Hollywood stars, politicians, huckster reverends — all were equal targets, and the Enquirer exposed them the way law enforcement nails suspects: Photographic evidence. Can’t lie your way out of a photo. So here’s a ruddy, paunchy, engaged-to-be-married Sen. Ted Kennedy with his 27-year-old paramour, a Miss Alabama runner-up; married presidential candidate Gary Hart, knocked out of the race after daring the media to catch him cheating — which the Enquirer did, running an exclusive picture of mistress Donna Rice sitting on his lap, Hart incredibly wearing a T-shirt reading Monkey Business; and an unprecedented image that changed tabloid journalism and resulted in the Enquirer’s best-selling issue: Elvis Presley in his coffin at Graceland.


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Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley

By Peter Guralnick

Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley

Why this book?

Speaking of Elvis, this biography, the second of two parts, is among the greatest of the late 20th century. We begin with Elvis entering the U.S. Army in 1958 and follow this increasingly lost soul through the years, his fame metastasizing into something unrivaled, incredible, enviable and wholly malignant. Guralnick captures the singular loneliness Elvis came to suffer, the slow suicide that was his Las Vegas residency, the exploitations of his manager, Col. Tom Parker, and a death so humiliating it finally made Elvis what he had longed to be for decades: Profoundly, squalidly human. None other than Bob Dylan called this Presley biography the one that “cancels out all others.”


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The Official Preppy Handbook

By Lisa Birnbach

The Official Preppy Handbook

Why this book?

I find WASP culture absurd and fascinating. I love that rich people, really rich people, have a fixation with stickers, slapping abbreviations for Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket or East Hampton on their luxury vehicles even though said luxury vehicles, parked in said locales, really should say it all. Such is the taxonomy writ large in Lisa Birnbach’s seminal Preppy Handbook, which explores other WASP signifiers such as “the politics of monogramming,” the elevation of old clothes over new, and what your choice of private schools, charities and vacation spots says about you. Pairs well with Take Ivy, a cult photography book by the Japanese photographer T. Hayashida, who spent the early-to-mid 1960s photographing American preps on college campuses — with prep soon becoming the rage in the Japan’s hipster Ginza district.


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You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again

By Julia Phillips

You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again

Why this book?

The New York Times called this memoir “The Hollywood Chainsaw Massacre!” and it still stands as one of the best. Phillips, who died New Year’s Day 2002, was a self-described “nice Jewish girl from Great Neck,” Long Island who loved the movies, movie stars — and books. She was sharp, unsparing, and became the first female producer to win an Oscar for Best Picture. The closest comp title, I think, is The Kid Stays In The Picture by the late Robert Evans, but Phillips does him better in eviscerating no one so much as herself. And this is someone who describes Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood as “very sweet, but . . . smells terrible,” before asking, “Why don’t the English like to bathe?” An observation that could get one canceled today.


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The Vanity Fair Diaries: Power, Wealth, Celebrity, and Dreams: My Years at the Magazine That Defined a Decade

By Tina Brown

The Vanity Fair Diaries: Power, Wealth, Celebrity, and Dreams: My Years at the Magazine That Defined a Decade

Why this book?

Londoner Tina Brown alights in New York City and falls fast and hard for power-playing, the machinations of billionaires and politicos, the trappings of glamour and wealth and the city itself, whose rococo sensibility she brings to Vanity Fair, a magazine she rescues from irrelevance and turns into a monthly-must read. Brown generated national headlines with her high-low sensibility and indelible cover images (a naked and pregnant Demi Moore scandalized middle America, much to Brown’s delight). She also writes about her guilt as a working mother, the thrill of matching the right journalist to the right story, and her trepidation in fighting for the salary she knew she deserved. A witty and colorful document of the last moment magazines really mattered.


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