The best books about popular culture

Who am I?

I was born in 1947, in the first wave of the baby boom, and was part of the first generation to grow up immersed in television, movies, and popular music. I have always felt the force of pop culture in my life.  But it was only at a certain point that it became something that I felt I could write about and be taken seriously. Writers like Pauline Kael made it possible for me because they obviously adored popular culture but they neither puffed it up nor dumbed it down. They wrote about it with intelligence, honesty, and curiosity and also as a barometer of where people were at and where society was going. That’s what I’ve aimed at in my own writing, from my books on the male and female body to those on politics and the media to my most recent exploration of the impact of television on our lives.

I wrote...


By Susan Bordo,

Book cover of TV

What is my book about?

Once upon a time, the news was only 15 minutes long and middle-class families huddled around a tiny black-and-white screen, TV dinners on their laps, awaiting weekly sitcoms that depicted an all-white world in which mom wore pearls and heels as she baked endless pies. If this seems a distant past, that's a measure of just how much TV has changed-and changed us.

Weaving together personal memoir, social and political history, and reflecting on key moments in the history of news broadcasting and prime time entertainment, Susan Bordo opens up the 75-year-old time-capsule that is TV and illustrates what a constant companion and dominant cultural force television has been, for good and for bad, in carrying us from the McCarthy hearings and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet to Mad MenKilling Eve, and the emergence of our first reality TV president.

The books I picked & why

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The Age of Movies

By Pauline Kael,

Book cover of The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael

Why this book?

Pauline Kael, long time film critic for New Yorker magazine, brought to her reviews a combination of the visceral and the intellectual that I found absolutely delicious. For me, reading her was like eating a scrumptious meal. She was not afraid to employ rough colloquialisms; she understood, rightly, that they lent vitality and reality to writing. And she was conversational, often to the chagrin of the grammar-checkers at the magazine. She showed you could be smart and still talk like a regular person. She is still delicious to read, even though the movies aren’t currently playing. And she cracked open media criticism for the rest of us, making it possible to write seriously about Jaws and The Godfather and not just Ingmar Bergman. She also clearly loved sex in the movies, and talked about it frequently and vividly.  In a then quite reserved magazine like the New Yorker, that was truly taboo-breaking.

Where the Girls Are

By Susan J. Douglas,

Book cover of Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media

Why this book?

Where the Girls Are is about a particular generation of women growing up in post War America, and the impact popular media had on their lives, both for good and for bad. It weaves wonderfully smart, often funny, always engagingly written discussions of pop music, movies, and television shows with Douglas’s own experiences at the time. It’s unabashedly feminist—but it isn’t a speech or a political manifesto. It’s an exploration of the push-pull of growing up female at a transitional time, a time in which attitudes toward women were changing, unevenly, and how pop culture reflected the tensions of the times. This book is history, memoir, sociology, media studies, all at once – immensely informative and very entertaining.

The Image

By Daniel J. Boorstin,

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

Why this book?

Boorstin’s political perspective is conservative, but as a media critic he introduced one of the most significant concepts for understanding, not only our media-saturated culture in general, but the abuses of right-wing television, such as FOX. His concept of the ‘pseudo-event’ is one that I have found incredibly useful in teaching and thinking over the years. A pseudo-event is something that acquires its reality and power not because it is based on fact, but simply because the media has reported it, repeated it, exaggerated it, re-played it, made a mantra of it. Ring a bell? “Email Scandal”? “No Collusion, No Obstruction”? Boorstin also talks about the human pseudo-event, which is essentially the creation of celebrities whose fame is due neither to talent or any other special quality but simply to the fact that they become well-known. Boorstin published these insights in 1960!  I think he’d feel both intellectually validated and aghast at how prescient they’ve turned out.

On Photography

By Susan Sontag,

Book cover of On Photography

Why this book?

Sontag, like Boorstin, was prescient. She was the first to make the claim, for example, that photography is misleading and seductive because it looks like unaltered reality, but never is. Sontag had in mind the photographer’s choice of what to aim her camera at. But clearly, her insight is even truer today as advertisers – and even ordinary people creating family albums, or posting their bodies for perusal on Instagram – have at their disposal digital technology that can make significant alterations that present bodies as firmer, younger, less blemished than they actually are. She also viewed the mere act of taking a picture as predatory: when we see something shocking or beautiful, our first impulse is to get out of the camera and “capture” it. She died, however, before the smartphone enabled observers to capture injustice and abuse, and I often wonder what she would have to say about that.

Maus I

By Art Spiegelman,

Book cover of Maus I: A Survivor's Tale: My Father Bleeds History

Why this book?

Maus is about the Holocaust.  It’s also a comic book, in which the various characters are depicted as animals – the Jews as mice, the Nazis as cats, etc... The presentation of the Holocaust in comic form was startling then—and still is, despite the flourishing of the graphic novel form. But on top of the innovative form, Spiegelman breaks another taboo in moving back and forth between the story of his father, who was a Holocaust survivor, and his current relationship with him, which is full of resentment and complaints. The notion that an author writing about a Holocaust survivor would include unflattering portrayals was shocking to many.  But for many more—the book has won numerous prizes and been translated into many languages—a bracing reality had challenged a soothing but dishonest sentimentality. The idea that a comic book could make you cry is extraordinary. I didn’t cry when I went to see Schindler’s List, but Maus made me cry.

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