Recommending Books for the Characters of MAD MEN

One of the reasons we love Mad Men is that the characters are flawed, complicated, and compelling. If only we could press the right book into their hand….here’s what we think they should read and why.


Don Draper – The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (recommended by Jeff)

To suggest a book for the Draper is to imply that you understand the Draper, and yet the central quality of the Draper is his unknowability. Cultivated or endemic, Dick Whitman’s enigma is magnetic. The best a would-be recommender can do then is to offer something about mystery, self-creation, and charm.

And what better cautionary tale is there than Jay Gatz? Doesn’t Nick Carraway look at Gatsby as we look at Donald Draper? The difference is that Don’s Daisy shifts constantly, from June Cleaver to Marilyn Monroe to Jackie Kennedy to…well, who is Megan again?

Like Gatsby, Draper has it all and so his discontentment is all the more paralyzing. It’s like the song, if Mick can’t get no satisfaction, then maybe there is no satisfaction can be had. Like Gatsby, Draper has climbed the ladder only to realize that there is no solace at the top.

Betty Draper – The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan (recommended by Rebecca)

As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night–she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — “Is this all?”

What Betty Draper called boredom (in the season 4 scene when she casually mentions to New Husband that she used to see a therapist), Betty Friedan called “the problem that has no name.” The quote above is from the opening paragraph of The Feminine Mystique, but if you told me it was expository material in the script from the Mad Men pilot, I’d believe you. “Is this all?” is the defining–and unutterable–question of poor, beautiful Betty’s life and the cause of her numb hands, daydrinking, and inability to form genuine emotional connections.

There’s enough fiction in Betty Draper’s life, so I’m sending her straight to self-help. I mean, has there ever been a character more in need of a feminist awakening? In my fantasy, Betty gets a copy of The Feminine Mystique, discovers that she’s not crazy or alone in her restless suburban angst, and passes it around to the rest of the equally miserable housewives on her block with fervor equal to that driving the Fifty Shades of Grey frenzy now.. Oh, and then she stops having creepy interactions with that Glen kid, but that might be asking too much. By the time the 1970s roll around, Betty is wearing flowy skirts and hosting women’s awareness meetings (the kind where you have to bring your own hand mirror) in her living room.

What? A girl can dream…

Peggy Olson – Book choice: The Dud Avocadoby Elaine Dundy (recommended by Kit)The Dud Avocado, published in 1958, follows the misadventures of American girl abroad Sally Jay Gorce in Paris. Sally has a sparkling personality, razor sharp wit, and is completely f—ed up, a Holly Golightly or a Carrie Bradshaw type who, due to the caprices of entertainment consumption, never became as iconic as these fictional ladies. I can imagine driven, self-conscious, and hopelessly uncool Peggy picking up a copy and so badly wanting to BE Sally Jay Gorce. And for 272 pages, she almost could be.

Pete Campbell – Amazing Fantasy #15 by Stan Lee (recommended by Edd)

He may have the mature title of Account Executive at SCDP, but Pete Campbell is Mad Men’s man-child. His emotional intelligence is trapped in frat house amber, ossified by WASP privilege. When faced with the complexities of adult relationships he is slippery, pathetic or just plain confused.

In short Pete Campbell is a man in need of a decent self-help book, ideally one that can be liquidised and intravenously fed into his neural cortex. How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie’s seminal tome, would do the trick. It contains a whole section on how to achieve Pete’s deepest desire: to be liked. And yet, Campbell wouldn’t read it. He is a proud man from a proud family. Self-help books, like his mother would say about adopted children, are for society’s “discards”.

Instead we could give him The Collected Stories of John Cheever, a book that would hold up a mirror to his clique’s studied lives of executive ennui, Martini-sodden housewives, and spiritual ache.

Or we could terrify him with Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. This is Pete’s Ghost of Christmas Future. It is the world of Mad Men driven at mach nine into the 1980s and off the rails. It is a love letter to his beloved New York written in gore. It is the gut-churning, coke-snorting, misogynistic harvest of the seeds sown by Campbell and his Dartmouth College buddies 20 years earlier.

Or we could highlight the racial underclass that this Hamptons-hugging group spends so much time and effort ignoring, with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

We could. We won’t. He wouldn’t read any of them. They are too uncomfortable, too close to his entitled bones. Too adult.

Instead for the man who when faced with nuclear annihilation declared “If I’m going to die, I want to die in Manhattan”, who when his wife is away watches cartoons in his PJs, who in a world swathed in masculine cigarette smoke can’t master a puff, let’s give him a comic.

Spider-man first appeared in Amazing Fantasy #15. Pete can definitely relate with Stan Lee’s greatest creation. Spider-man swings through his beloved New York, he is a teenager wrong-footed by adult responsibilities, and he feels that the world is simultaneously at his feet and against him.

Spider-man is both escapism and realism for Pete. He won’t learn anything, just see himself in Marvel technicolour. A perfect read for the Upper East Side’s man-child.

Joan Harris – The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (recommended by Amanda)

When we left Joan Harris, she had become pregnant with Roger Sterling’s baby while her (infantile, unsuccessful) husband is in Vietnam. She has also been given a promotion in name only, making her the Director of Agency Operations for SCDP.

Joan is a complex and powerful character, stuck somewhere between the working world of Peggy Olson and the stifled housewifery of Betty Draper. Joan doesn’t seem to know what she wants anymore. She’s got the marriage she worked for, but she values the job she has more. Maybe.

I think Joan would appreciate Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, a book about an upper-class woman who flouts society’s expectations by leaving an abusive marriage and fleeing across an ocean. Countess Olenska simultaneously lives according to society’s expectations, keeping distant from the man she loves because the relationship is scandalous, attending balls, playing the game. Like Joan, Wharton’s Countess can’t have everything she wants- it’s security or love, acceptance or scandal, an unhappy home and the love of her friends or a happy home, apart from everything she thought she wanted when she was young.

I don’t think the book would give Joan an insight into her situation or guide her to make any drastic decisions. I get the feeling that Joan will continue on the path she’s on, (especially now that she is having a baby, the same choice Newland Archer makes when May tells him she’s pregnant), but seeing her situation mirrored in a glitzy New York she never knew may give her some comfort or strength. Not that she seems to need it.

Roger Sterling – This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper (recommended by Greg)

Roger Sterling is a smooth-talking, sharp-witted man’s man. His appetite for booze and younger women, and his general schmuckiness (though his schmuckiness is certainly part of his “charm”), belie his hidden sweetheart. He genuinely cares about Joan, even though anything other than a mutually-assured-destructive relationship between the two will never be possible.

For Roger, I’m recommending Jonathan Tropper’s This Is Where I Leave You. The novel’s narrator Judd is a younger, more self-deprecating, even more wise-cracking version of Roger. Judd has just caught his wife cheating on him, and spends the rest of the novel wondering what his life really means, all the while “falling in love” with just about every woman he meets. In the rare moments when Roger’s not wrapped up in his own sense of entitlement, he seems to experience similar existential dilemmas. So, Roger would love this novel, both for its narrator and for the opportunity to learn what’s it like to be the one taken for granted.

Sally Draper – It’s Not the End of the World by Judy Blume (recommended by Jen)

Judy Blume, hurry up and publish It’s Not the End of the World! Sally’s in dire need of an up-front, preteen tale of tense, unhappy parents who threaten to leave. Those opening lines would blast a hole in the Tao of Betty: “I don’t think I’ll ever get married. Why should I? All it does is make you miserable.” Sally will hear that loud and clear—and hopefully start fantasizing about becoming an international spy, a rock star, or an aviatrix, anything other than a hausfrau.There are plenty of parallels: three kids, a crush, the mom randomly smashing something. The narrator’s habit of grading her days would get Sally’s attention, too—after all, Sally’s used to constant scrutiny and assessments, what with Betty’s cutting judgements and her therapist’s evaluations.And then maybe she could get her hands on Blume’s Then Again, Maybe I Won’t. The combination of moving to a new town, underage drinking, and a fog of hormones would surely strike a chord, even though (especially when?) written from a boy’s point of view. I bet Glen would have a copy.

Faye Miller – Bad Marie by Marcy Dermansky (recommended by Jodi)

Faye Miller is the intelligent, sophisticated researcher who Don done did wrong. Every woman I know who watches Mad Men loves Faye because she reminds us so much of ourselves, or who we want to be when we grow up. In Faye we are finally given a character who seems to have chosen herself over a man. What’s not to love?

But Faye is not impervious to heartbreak and Don does the breaking in a particularly cruel fashion. When I went looking through my brain for a book to give Faye I wanted the literary equivalent of Liz Phair’s “Exile in Guyville.” I couldn’t find one, but I think I came up with something good.

The book? Marcy Dermansky’s Bad Marie, a fast-paced French-farce of a novel about a woman who absconds to France with her employer’s husband and daughter.

You might be thinking, what? But it makes sense if you think about it a little. First, the book is completely engaging and all-consuming. When you crack open Bad Marie you’re fifty pages in before you even bat an eye. Faye could probably use something engrossing and outside of herself right now.

Second, Faye is an educated, established career woman in the 60s. A rarity indeed. She’s someone who made choices that were quite different from her peers. If you’ve ever read The Feminine Mystique you’d know that  college women in the 50s and 60s were encouraged not to get too smart and career-minded lest they ruin themselves for wifehood. Going against that kind of indoctrination takes a lot of gumption. Marie too has a lot of gumption and makes choices that are bold and daring. It’s something I’m sure Faye would appreciate.

Ken Cosgrove – Orientation and Other Stories by Daniel Orozco (recommended by Jodi)

Sure Ken Cosgrove seems like your typical fratboy Account Executive doofus, but he’s got a serious literary side to him. After all, let’s not forget that his short story “Tapping a Maple on a Cold Vermont Morning” was published in The Atlantic. While that might have been a much easier feat in the 60s, it still carries some cred. It’s also mentioned that Ken’s got two unpublished novels in the can, which means he’s totally heading toward a penning a Roman a clef about the advertising industry. You know it. This is why I’m going to loan Ken my copy of Orientation and Other Stories by Daniel Orozco.

As a former corporate drone, I love the way Orozco writes about office life in contemporary America. Often writers (think Ed Park or Joshua Ferris) satirize office life or they think they’re satirizing it, but really they’re just writing about the way it actually is, at least all the negatives that come with working in a cube farm. It feels shallow and condescending as if the authors are looking down at all those sellouts who chain themselves to a desk rather than spend their limited time on Earth creating.

In many “office novels” there is no kindness or humanity to be found which I guess is supposed to be the satire. But what Orozco does is find the humanity in those places that try so hard to wash the stink of it from their workers without backing away from the soullessness of so many corporate jobs. This is why his work resonates so much and doesn’t feel condescending.

Ken would be wise to take some notes on the way Orozco makes even the most wretched of characters sympathetic and worthy of your understanding. It would be really easy to take all your hatred of Pete Campbell and paint him as an unapologetic monster, but even Pete has redeeming qualities. Right?

Mrs. Olson (Peggy’s Mom) – The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (recommended by Jeff)

Peggy’s mom needs to back off. She loves Peggy and wants her to be settled, but she doesn’t seem to have the faintest idea of how to understand her. That Peggy got pregnant and didn’t know until the baby was born seems to affirm rather than question her standing assumption that Peggy should get backburner her career and get married at all costs.

So how about a book where the bright, talented, sometimes depressed female protagonist feels liberated by a diaphram? Do you think Peggy’s Mom would get the clue that Peggy doesn’t need more structure, she needs less? If any book could do it, it would be The Bell Jar.That’s not to say that Peggy is exactly like Esther Greenwood, but she is complicated and ahead of her time. And her mother needs to get some glimpse of what she is dealing with.


How’d we do? We didn’t cover everyone – got any ideas?

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