The best books about how celebrity culture works and what it is doing to America today

Why am I passionate about this?

I’ve been fascinated by celebrities and heroes ever since I was a child. That compulsion became something I wanted to understand. I got my chance as the head editor of People magazine. Over the years, I met more than my share of celebrities – Ronald Reagan, Tom Hanks, Malcolm X, and Princess Diana, to name only a few. I began to take notes about my brushes with fame and think about celebrities in history and why they have recently become so dominant in our culture. Celebrity Nation is the result. Enjoy it!

I wrote...

Celebrity Nation: How America Evolved into a Culture of Fans and Followers

By Landon Y. Jones,

Book cover of Celebrity Nation: How America Evolved into a Culture of Fans and Followers

What is my book about?

Celebrity Nation is a vivid history of celebrity culture written by Landon Jones, the former editor of People magazine. Jones draws on his personal experiences to explore why fame no longer stems only from heroic achievements but from the number of “likes” and shares—and what this means for American culture today. Jones brings a personal perspective to fame and its dark underbelly, complicated by the arrival of the internet and social media.

Jones enlivens his account with profiles of celebrities he knew personally, ranging from Malcolm X to Princess Diana, as well as observations about contemporary social media stars like Kim Kardashian, to show how celebrity has been wielded as a weapon of mass distraction to spawn narcissism, harm, and loneliness.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America

Landon Y. Jones Why did I love this book?

Daniel Boorstin’s The Image is an amazing study by the former Librarian of Congress that first set in place many of the ideas about celebrities that are still with us today.

“The celebrity is a person who is known for [their] well-knowness,” Boorstin wrote. He describes “pseudo-events”, the manufactured illusions that we mistake for reality in a media-saturated world.

Drawing on examples like Charles Lindbergh, Boorstin shows how we come closer and closer to degrading all fame into notoriety. Thus, the heroes of the past are blurred before our eyes and eventually disappear.

The Image is the first book I read about celebrity and it remains one of the best.

By Daniel J. Boorstin,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Image as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

First published in 1962, this wonderfully provocative book introduced the notion of “pseudo-events”—events such as press conferences and presidential debates, which are manufactured solely in order to be reported—and the contemporary definition of celebrity as “a person who is known for his well-knownness.” Since then Daniel J. Boorstin’s prophetic vision of an America inundated by its own illusions has become an essential resource for any reader who wants to distinguish the manifold deceptions of our culture from its few enduring truths.

Book cover of His Picture in the Papers: A Speculation on Celebrity in America Based on the Life of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.

Landon Y. Jones Why did I love this book?

When I decided to write about celebrity, I knew from the beginning that I would depend on Richard Schickel’s His Picture in the Papers.
Schickel was the former movie reviewer for both LIFE and TIME magazines, and I used simply enjoy his perceptive insights when I also worked at TIME.
Schickel uses the case study of the charismatic Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. to show how his celebrity was generated by his image reproduced in movies, magazines, and newspapers.

Schickel later wrote Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity in America, which further discussed how celebrity images have replaced the value of ideas in American culture.

Book cover of Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality

Landon Y. Jones Why did I love this book?

Neal Gabler is one of our most astute cultural critics.

I met him when I invited him to be my guest in a Princeton seminar called “Writing about Popular Culture.”

He talked compellingly about his books like Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity and An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, which carefully examined the inner workings of entertainment and celebrity. 

In Life: The Movie, Gabler takes the argument even further, drawing on examples ranging from Elizabeth Taylor and Tom Cruise to Princess Diana and Oprah Winfrey to show how celebrity hagiography has turned everything from news to religion and politics into an inescapable public entertainment. 

By Neal Gabler,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Life as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The story of how our bottomless appetite for novelty, gossip, and melodrama has turned everything—news, politics, religion, high culture—into one vast public entertainment.

Neal Gabler calls them "lifies," those blockbusters written in the medium of life that dominate the media and the national conversation for weeks, months, even years: the death of Princess Diana, the trial of O.J. Simpson, Kenneth Starr vs. William Jefferson Clinton.  Real Life as Entertainment is hardly a new phenomenon, but the movies, and now the new information technologies, have so accelerated it that it is now the reigning popular art form.  How this came to…

Book cover of Claims to Fame: Celebrity in Contemporary America

Landon Y. Jones Why did I love this book?

The sociologist Joshua Gamson was among the first to analyze the effects of television on our image of celebrityhood.

In Claims to Fame, he rebels against the democratization of fame and is nostalgic for the days before fame was divorced from merit.

He cites Clifford Geertz’s classic The Interpretation of Cultures to make the point that celebrities are “a powerless elite” with high status and visibility but literally no power of any kind over audiences.

And now, of course, in the age of social media, these discrepancies are magnified.

By Joshua Gamson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Claims to Fame as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Moving from "People" magazine to publicists' offices to tours of stars' homes, Joshua Gamson investigates the larger-than-life terrain of American celebrity culture. In the first major academic work since the early 1940s to seriously analyze the meaning of fame in American life, Gamson begins with the often-heard criticisms that today's heroes have been replaced by pseudoheroes, that notoriety has become detached from merit. He draws on literary and sociological theory, as well as interviews with celebrity-industry workers, to untangle the paradoxical nature of an American popular culture that is both obsessively invested in glamour and fantasy yet also aware of…

Book cover of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community

Landon Y. Jones Why did I love this book?

If you are looking for an “Eureka!” moment while reading about celebrity, you can start with Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, first published in 2000 and re-issued with a new preface in 2020.

Putnam convincingly shows how Americans have become increasingly disconnected – from bowling leagues, from PTAs, neighborhood associations, from all forms of membership organizations.

Why did this happen? Putnam blames television and now the fragmented internet for the decline in these civic assets. I think that, more specifically, celebrity has become the opiate of the masses.

Celebrity worship has become a weapon of mass distraction. We suffer from an excess of individualism that will not end until we begin to accept and embrace the common good we all share.

When you combine the rise of celebrity with the decline of civic assets, that’s America today.

By Robert D. Putnam,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Bowling Alone as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Once we bowled in leagues, usually after work -- but no longer. This seemingly small phenomenon symbolizes a significant social change that Robert Putnam has identified in this brilliant volume, Bowling Alone, which The Economist hailed as "a prodigious achievement."

Drawing on vast new data that reveal Americans' changing behavior, Putnam shows how we have become increasingly disconnected from one another and how social structures -- whether they be PTA, church, or political parties -- have disintegrated. Until the publication of this groundbreaking work, no one had so deftly diagnosed the harm that these broken bonds have wreaked on our…

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Book cover of The Hunt for the Peggy C: A World War II Maritime Thriller

John Winn Miller

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What is my book about?

The Hunt for the Peggy C is best described as Casablanca meets Das Boot. It is about an American smuggler who struggles to rescue a Jewish family on his rusty cargo ship, outraging his mutinous crew of misfits and provoking a hair-raising chase by a brutal Nazi U-boat captain bent on revenge.

During the nerve-wracking 3,000-mile escape, Rogers falls in love with the family’s eldest daughter, Miriam, a sweet medical student with a militant streak. Everything seems hopeless when Jake is badly wounded, and Miriam must prove she’s as tough as her rhetoric to put down a mutiny by some of Jake’s fed-up crew–just as the U-boat closes in for the kill.

The Hunt for the Peggy C: A World War II Maritime Thriller

By John Winn Miller,

What is this book about?

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The normally aloof Rogers finds himself drawn in by the family's warmth and faith, but he can't afford to let his guard down when Oberleutnant Viktor…

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