The best books to use as pop culture primers

Who am I?

Pop culture is my life, and I like my characters to be well-versed in it. There's no reason to pretend otherwise, as what we consume informs who we are as people. Plus, there’s something beautiful in something everybody collectively knows. I’ve worked hard to make pop culture not just an interest but a career path. I currently program films for the Seattle International Film Festival, work as a playwright and performer, cover film, theatre, and burlesque for The Ticket at the Seattle Times, am a frequent guest on podcasts such as Film at Fifty, and assist at various arts organizations all over the greater Seattle area.


I wrote...

Triceratops

By Marcus Gorman,

Book cover of Triceratops

What is my book about?

A story of musicians, writers, painters, and alcoholics. Set in New York City, Henry, and Charlotte—two twentysomethings who never thought they’d see each other again—reunite for three short weeks filled with liquor, strange acquaintances, and good music, causing them to rethink their relationships, their pasts, and their futures. Told from both Henry and Charlotte’s perspectives, Triceratops is a darkly comic adventure about being lost in a world of nostalgia, sitcoms, and antidepressants.

The books I picked & why

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The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway

By William Goldman,

Book cover of The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway

Why this book?

Writer William Goldman, most popular for penning The Princess Bride, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and All the President’s Men, embeds himself in the Broadway world, seeing every show in the 1967-1968 season; to quote the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast, this book is the autopsy. It’s an enormously accessible book about American theatre, with a murderers’ row of interview subjects at Goldman’s disposal and the author’s ability to translate gossip into hard journalistic data. Even the more economics-based chapters, such as a fascinating one on how most plays live or die on presales to well-connected women’s social groups (a.k.a. “Theatre-Party Ladies”), are as breezy as Goldman’s Oscar-winning screenplays. (Content Warning: The book contains some unfortunate and dated language.)

The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway

By William Goldman,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Playwright/novelist/screenwriter Goldman analyzes Broadway from the perspective of the audiences, playwrights, critics, producers and actors. “Very nearly perfect... It is a loose-limbed, gossipy, insider, savvy, nuts-and-bolts report on the annual search for the winning numbers that is now big-time American commercial theatre.” –Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, The New York Times


Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes from I Love Lucy to Community

By Saul Austerlitz,

Book cover of Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes from I Love Lucy to Community

Why this book?

To quote New York Times critic Sam Anderson, “the sitcom is arguably the defining commercial art form of the American 20th century,” and this book gives that hypothesis weight. Over 24 chapters (starting in 1951 with I Love Lucy, the Rosetta Stone of the genre, and ending in 2014 with Dan Harmon’s cult hit Community), Austerlitz uses the television comedy format to discuss joke structure, technological advancements in the arts, and the evolution of American social and political consciousness over the previous half-century. Sitcoms are by their nature the tension between two opposing forces, centering on characters who strive to change their lot in life only to have everything reset by episode’s end, just in time to do it all again next week. There’s something both beautiful and menacing about that.

Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes from I Love Lucy to Community

By Saul Austerlitz,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The form is so elemental, so basic, that we have difficulty imagining a time before it existed: a single set, fixed cameras, canned laughter, zany sidekicks, quirky family antics. Obsessively watched and critically ignored, sitcoms were a distraction, a gentle lullaby of a kinder, gentler America—until suddenly the artificial boundary between the world and television entertainment collapsed.

            In this book we can watch the growth of the sitcom, following the path that leads from Lucy to The Phil Silvers Show; from The Dick Van Dyke Show to The Mary Tyler Moore Show; from M*A*S*H to Taxi; from Cheers to Roseanne;…


Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation

By Jeff Chang,

Book cover of Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation

Why this book?

Published in 2005, this deep dive into one of the few truly U.S.-created art forms is a truly wild and fabulous primer on the origins of hip-hop. Chang is a delightful historian, taking his sweet time getting to know the New York citizens (especially in the Bronx) who gathered in apartments and converted warehouses and birthed a new kind of music. The commercialization of the form only comes later in the book, so this non-fiction tome is more of a social examination of the people and the nationwide events that led us to the relative present. On a personal note, the chapters that mention Bay Area rap stations of my formative years hit me right in the feelings.

Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation

By Jeff Chang,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Can't Stop Won't Stop as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A history of hip-hop cites its origins in the post-civil rights Bronx and Jamaica, drawing on interviews with performers, activists, gang members, DJs, and others to document how the movement has influenced politics and culture.


Mike Nichols: A Life

By Mark Harris,

Book cover of Mike Nichols: A Life

Why this book?

Journalist and former executive editor for Entertainment Weekly Mark Harris is three for three with his full-length books. His first, Pictures at a Revolution, examined the rise of New Hollywood through the five 1967 Best Picture nominees. His second, Five Came Back, chronicled five film directors who assisted in World War II. But his strongest work to date is a birth-to-earth, warts-and-all biography of one of the most influential personalities in American film and theatre, Mike Nichols. From his genre-altering comedy work with Elaine May to his Broadway collaborations with the likes of Simon and Hellman to helming landmark film work such as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, and The Birdcage, it’s somehow a breeze even at almost 700 pages. We should all strive for a life worthy of such a loving and well-researched biography.

Mike Nichols: A Life

By Mark Harris,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A National Book Critics Circle finalist • One of People's top 10 books of 2021 •An instant New York Times bestseller • Named a best book of the year by NPR and Time

A magnificent biography of one of the most protean creative forces in American entertainment history, a life of dazzling highs and vertiginous plunges—some of the worst largely unknown until now—by the acclaimed author of Pictures at a Revolution and Five Came Back

Mike Nichols burst onto the scene as a wunderkind: while still in his twenties, he was half of a hit improv duo with Elaine May…


Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live

By Doug Hill, Jeff Weingrad,

Book cover of Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live

Why this book?

Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller’s oral history Live From New York (published in 2002, updated and expanded a decade later) is probably the most popular book on sketch comedy giant Saturday Night Live, but I’m more partial to Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad’s 1986 record of the show’s historic but tumultuous first ten years on the air. Unlike Live From New York, the vibe is less “hanging out with comedy giants” and more “I can’t believe these coked-out maniacs were able to stay alive, let alone create something that’s still going strong.” As SNL approaches its 50th anniversary, see the near-impossible alchemy that changed network television forever.

Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live

By Doug Hill, Jeff Weingrad,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Saturday Night is the intimate history of the original Saturday Night Live, from its beginnings as an outlaw program produced by an unruly band of renegades from the comedy underground to a TV institution that made stars of John Belushi, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman, Garrett Morris, Joe Piscopo and Eddie Murphy.

This is the book that revealed to the world what really happened behind the scenes during the first ten years of this groundbreaking program, from the battles SNL fought with NBC to the battles fought within the show itself. It's all here: The…


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