What’s on a Character’s Nightstand?

I have an obsessive curiosity about what people are reading, including characters from TV and film.

It’s a tick which has been increasingly difficult to satisfy thanks to the ubiquitous e-readers that conceal the literary tastes of strangers, and my move to the suburbs which provides fewer opportunities to snoop among oblivious crowds.

I’d like to think that I have a knack for putting a book and a reader together based on only snippets of information, ranging from superficial markers – like appearance, education, and occupation – to more precise but time-consuming probes based on conversations, recollections of an individual’s experiences, and observations of company he or she keeps.

I am almost equally interested in the lives of fictional characters, particularly those of TV shows and movies, as far as their brushes with literature go.

What lies on a character’s nightstand is not a random selection. (I’d like to be a fly on the wall in writers’ rooms where such decisions are made. Are they scanning bestseller lists, digging into their own pool of literary references, or do books just call out to them when they think about what their character will read?)

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In any case, these selections seem to be, at the very least, an insider’s joke, but more likely they’re a calculated revelation of a character’s weaknesses and aspirations or even a critical plot device.

Take, for instance, the phenomenal Breaking Bad series in which Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass had a prominent place in the storyline crescendo, going from the poignant artifact of the doomed encounter between Walter White and his victim, Gale Boetticher, to being a key factor in the exposure of Walter White’s crimes, and the vehicle for the emotionally charged denouement that gave the series so much juice at the end.

With the Breaking Bad frenzy continuing through Netflix even after the series’ thundering finale (Anthony Hopkins just finished binging on it), I wonder if Leaves of Grass is being read with a different perspective on the relationship between art and science, or, if it is being discovered by the generation of Millennials whose lingo, aesthetic, and attitude are captured with such memorable zest throughout the brilliant script.

Another memorable example of such inter-textuality was in an episode of The Sopranos in which Carmella is seen devouring Madame Bovary after the literature professor she briefly dated during her separation from Tony said that she reminded him of the heroine.

One has to know a little bit about Madame Bovary – the character and the novel – to understand that the comparison wasn’t intended as a compliment. However, Carmella’s experiential and educational shortcomings prevented her from seeing the intention for what it really was.

Then there is Don Draper reading Leon Uris’s 1958 bestseller Exodus on the episode of Mad Men that called for his better understanding of the plight of the Jewish people in securing a homeland, an insight he needed to get the coveted Israeli Department of Tourism account and chart a direct path to the heart and mind of his adored Jewish mistress.

[Editor’s Note. There are many moments of characters reading books on Mad Men, including the one captured in the image for this article: Don Draper reading Dante’s Inferno on the beaches of Maui (from the Season 6 premiere). Don’s inner world manifested in what he’s reading, perhaps? Photo via the always-fun FictionalCharactersReadingBooks.tumblr.com]

Recently I saw an episode from the farewell season of The Office where one of the characters was seen reading Tim Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Workweek. I can’t think of a more precise or witty snapshot of the cultural zeitgeist; goodness knows the employees of Dunder Mifflin could benefit from The Pareto Principle.

The first time I remember being deeply impacted by a character’s nightstand was when as a teenager I watched Alan Pakula’s screen adaptation of William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice starring Meryl Streep as Sophie and Kevin Kline as her tragic, schizophrenic lover Nathan Landau.

Harrowing images of Nazi brutality aside, Sophie’s and Nathan’s reading choices – hers a Polish translation of Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe, and his an eloquent tribute to Hart Crane’s The Bridge – so overwhelmed me that I asked my dad to take me to the library immediately.

To this day I often think of the book and the movie when I drive through the Brooklyn Bridge. Look Homeward, Angel, left a more shallow impression, though I think it might have cost me a shot at elementary French, as I spent the year trying to decipher the novel surreptitiously during class and missed all the fun.

Still, a character’s nightstand is a place where conversation between books and other variety of fiction continues, and viewers are invited on a journey if they catch the invitation in time.

What books have you seen your favorite TV and film characters reading?

About Julia Serebrinsky

Julia Serebrinsky is a book editor, ghostwriter, and a mother of feisty twin 10 year old boys.

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