There are plenty of TV shows that have been adapted from books, but some of the best bookish TV shows are actually about bookish culture. From bookselling to writing to the publishing industry, TV has tried—with mixed results—to capture the reality of bookish life. Based on my experience as an editor at a publishing company, I’ve ranked some of my favorites using completely arbitrary categories.
(Disclaimer: I work in children’s publishing in Canada, a much smaller and less glamorous part of the industry than many of these New York-based shows are trying to depict.)
Best Honorary Bookish TV Show: Gilmore Girls
Okay, so this is not a show about life in publishing, but I couldn’t leave it off my list. Gilmore Girls probably has the most book references of any TV show by sheer virtue of how much Rory is always reading. Some sources say that’s as many as 339 books. (Plus all the ones mentioned in Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life.)
Rory reads everything from classic fiction (Anna Karenina, Beloved) to children’s books (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Eloise) to buzzy new (at that time) fiction (Everything Is Illuminated, The Kite Runner) to memoirs (Kitchen Confidential) to non-fiction (Nickel and Dimed) to Stephen King (Carrie, Cujo). And the sheer delight she takes in reading made her a role model for an entire generation of young readers. Writing as someone who had a book in my backpack or purse at all times and often chose reading over socializing, she’s undeniably one of the most bookish TV characters of all time. And for that, Gilmore Girls earns an honorary mention here.
Most Canadian Bookish TV Show: Being Erica
If you’re not Canadian, you probably don’t know this show. It aired from 2009–2011 and was about a woman named Erica Strange, whose therapist sends her back in time to try to fix decisions she regretted. Slowly, she learns from her past mistakes.
Erica starts the show as an underachiever but gets an editorial job in publishing and slowly works her way up the ladder, eventually starting her own company. It wasn’t a wildly accurate view of publishing—for one thing, the company has incredibly fancy offices that were actually filmed in Toronto’s opera house. As in, the place where opera is performed. But Erica loved books, and the show was pretty real about how hard it can be to make it in a competitive industry.
Best Single Bookish Episode: Brooklyn Nine-Nine
In the “Skyfire Cycle” episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the gang investigates death threats against author D.C. Parlov, a fantasy author similar to George R.R. Martin. Terry is obsessed with Parlov’s books, and Jake quickly gets in on the fun, too. Both of them go undercover as fans dressed as characters from Parlov’s book series Skyfire Cycle. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is not an especially bookish show, but this one episode was a totally entertaining, gentle mocking of Game of Thrones and its fandom.
Most Ridiculous Bookish TV Show: You
Oh, You, you were so ridiculous and problematic, and yet I was hooked. You is about a stalker named Joe, played by Penn Badgley, who works in a bookstore and develops an obsession with a customer. He follows her home, watches her through her window…and then things get even creepier. Beck, the object of Joe’s stalking, is an aspiring writer. They meet when she buys a copy of Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters at his store. Joe talks about books all day long, restores rare books, and also shares books with his next-door neighbor’s son, Pablo. Meanwhile, Beck is in an MFA program and has a friend who is distantly related to J.D. Salinger. And everyone goes to a Charles Dickens festival in one episode! (This is the point at which I realized I was hooked.) There is also a scene where a literary agent rides around in a limo? (This seems very unrealistic to me, but then again I don’t work in New York.)
Books are woven throughout You, and though the show has lots of issues, I think it’s trying to say something about literary men who want to keep women behind glass like so many rare books. Maybe?
Best Bookseller Fantasy Comedy: Black Books
Black Books is about the grumpiest bookseller of all time, Bernard Black, and his friends. Bernard hates customers and thinks of the bookstore as his personal library. Although a real bookstore wouldn’t survive if the owner had this attitude, it is kind of amusing to view Black Books as a fantasy revenge for all the times customers have asked you for “that book with the blue cover.”
Weirdest Skewering of A Specific Publishing Trend: Friends From College
Friends From College is…not great (why are all these people so terrible!). But it does have world’s most charming man Keegan-Michael Key and everyone’s favorite child star Fred Savage playing an author and literary agent, respectively. Key’s Ethan is a well-reviewed writer whose sales have dried up. His agent Max suggests that he try to write a young adult novel—and not just any young adult novel, but one about a centaur. This is a funny idea in theory, skewering the idea of hyper-specific publishing trends that seem to take over the industry for years at a time. But the show has a weirdly antagonistic, cynical view of young adult literature that’s kind of off-putting.
Most Cynical Bookish TV Show: The Affair
The Affair is a show about, well, an affair, told from the alternating perspectives of the man and the woman involved. The man, Noah (Dominic West) is a teacher and novelist struggling to write his second novel. He is kind of terrible and clearly thinks of himself as a Great American Novelist in the vein of your typical problematic literary white guy. The depiction of the publishing industry is all over the place. Noah is critically acclaimed, but as the show begins, not particularly successful; his father-in-law, Bruce, is also critically acclaimed but a bestselling novelist as well. His character is a total caricature of both a snobby literary lion (referring to prizes as “not the Pulitzer”) and a commercially successful James Patterson type. These two things generally don’t go together.
That isn’t the only logistical inaccuracy—there’s also a literary agent character who is somehow also an editor at a publishing house, which would be a major conflict of interest and not allowed at all. In the world of The Affair, publishing is a business full of backroom machinations and cynical people using marketing techniques to create bestsellers. I mean, this may be partially true, but it’s also an industry full of people who love books. Like, a lot. You have to love books because publishing salaries are notoriously low!
Best Overall Bookish TV Show: Younger
This Sutton-Foster-starring bookish TV show is a lot of fun. It wins number 1 on my list because it combines that fun with a loving mocking of publishing trends. Yes, some of the plotlines can be a bit over the top, and the show has a very optimistic view of how long it takes to write and publish a book. (It usually takes years, not months, even after the book has been written.)
Younger writers consult with an anonymous publishing insider to vet the accuracy of the show, leading to a pretty good—if glammed up—take on actual publishing life. No, we don’t all wear beautiful expensive blouses to work, and it’s seriously unrealistic that a young editor like Hilary Duff’s Kelsey would have her own imprint. But Younger‘s take on many of today’s publishing trends is pure gold. They’ve covered the self-important “serious literature” superstar (Anton Bjornberg, aka Karl Ove Knausgard). They’ve done the single woman in New York writing autobiographical books (Annabell Bancroft, aka Candace Bushnell). They even have a fantasy writer who sells millions of books (Edward L.L. Moore, aka George R.R. Martin). The show has even spawned a real book of its own, Marriage Vacation, “written” by one of the characters.
Younger isn’t really a realistic depiction of publishing (if you want that, you can just imagine me spraying in dry shampoo before going to work to stare at a screen for most of the day). But it wins best bookish TV show thanks to its clever, glamorized version of publishing life, and because it doesn’t forget that people who work in publishing really love books!
If you’re looking for more bookish TV shows, we’ve got you covered.