How TV Shows Use Books as Props: From SCHITT’S CREEK to MAD MEN
If you’ve ever paused your favorite show just to Google whatever book a character is reading, then you’ve probably wondered: How do TV shows use books as props?
A while ago, as I was trying to track down what David Rose was reading in a scene from Schitt’s Creek, I stumbled across a surprising answer to that question, which made me wonder how other shows use books as props. How do books make it into a TV show? Who decides on the titles? What do they add to the show? So, I dug into my memory, did a little more streaming and a lot of Googling, and here’s what I found:
Books As Props: Who Picks Them
As you might expect, screenwriters often write books into a show’s screenplay in order to add nuance, ambience, and metaphors to the story. Other times, books aren’t written into the script, but the show’s prop master might feature them prominently in the set design. In fact, selecting props that aren’t in the script is an art form, as Marvel’s prop master, Russell Bobbitt, tells Backstage.com. Anyone, Bobbitt points out, can pick out “obvious props,” but when describing his expertise, he says, “What you have to do is sort of think of what’s not in the script and what will support a story and what will support a character.”
But the prop master’s challenge doesn’t end there. Once they pick specific books as props, they have to produce them within budget and timing constraints. In an interview with CollectorsWeekly.com, prop master Scott Buckwald explains that unlike movie timelines, which allow him several weeks to track down props, TV show production schedules typically leave him no more than a week. When Buckwald worked on Mad Men, if he couldn’t find a period-specific copy of a book in time for filming, he’d take on the task of recreating the cover himself. Because all props on Mad Men had to look true to the 1960s, Buckwald sometimes had to remake book covers if the originals he was able to track down looked too aged. Buckwald’s commitment to detail is shared by all prop masters, including Trish Gallaher Glenn, who told NPR what it’s like to prepare props for camera close-ups with high definition and other technological advancements: “[E]very detail can be read — even a barcode on a book.”
Prop masters work with prop makers, stylists, craftsmen, art directors, designers and other crew members to obtain, make backups of, keep track of, and eventually get rid of all props throughout a show’s production. So, the next time you get excited about the books you see on your favorite show, take a minute to appreciate the prop department’s ingenuity and dedication to getting the details just right.
Books As Props: What They Add to the Show
SPOILER ALERT: A a few plot details may be revealed in some of the shows I mention below (The Simpsons, Gilmore Girls, Parks and Recreation, The Wire, The Big Bang Theory, Younger, The Crown, The Queen’s Gambit, Orange is the New Black, Schitt’s Creek, and Judging Amy).
A character’s choice of books can reveal a lot about personality. Whether books as props appear in characters’ hands or in their on-set homes and offices, the specific titles probably aren’t coincidental. Eight-year-old Lisa from The Simpsons, one of TV’s longest-airing shows, is often shown reading books that reveal something about her personality. At times, she reads books that feature younger characters, such as Ghost World (Daniel Clowes), but most of the time, she displays her hallmark precociousness with selections like The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath) and The Corrections (Jonathan Franzen). It’s clear Lisa thinks and reflects about the books she reads — even if she sometimes interprets themes differently from how the author intended, as evidenced by the time she meets Amy Tan and is dismissed by the author because she has misunderstood The Joy Luck Club.
Another infamously bookish TV character is Rory Gilmore from Gilmore Girls. Viewers of the show quickly learn that Rory reads frequently — she is often shown with her nose in a book. Over the years, viewers also discover that, not only does she get through hundreds of books, but she also doesn’t limit herself to particular genres or styles. Much has been written about her large and varied book selection, and she has even inspired a popular reading challenge. Like Lisa Simpson, Rory’s taste in books is precocious and includes Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy), The God of Small Things (Arundhati Roy), and A Confederacy of Dunces (John Kennedy Toole). Rory’s life is clearly influenced by her love of books — something she confirms in her valedictorian speech with her famous statement, “I live in two worlds. One is a world of books.” Rory also appreciates other book lovers, including her boyfriend, Jess, with whom she read a number of books.
While Lisa and Rory’s prolific and voracious reading habits are implied by the almost impossibly vast variety of titles their shows feature, other characters are shown with fewer books that are more specific to who they are. Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation, for example, has a collection of books on her office shelf, but the one that stands out most is a title that truly highlights her passion for women’s contributions to society: America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines (Gail Collins). In The Wire, stick-up man Omar Little’s intelligence and wit — informed by his street knowledge — are reflected in his enjoyment of Ghettoheat (Hickson), which he reads while he’s in prison. The personality of Stringer Bell, a second-in-command drug kingpin in The Wire, is also revealed by a book — but not until after his death. Detectives in his apartment find The Wealth of Nations (Adam Smith) on Bell’s bookshelf — a perfect summation of his business-minded approach to the drug game, and a perfect contrast to so many other characters who focus instead on reputation and ego.
At times, books as props help evolve a character’s personality. In The Wire, D’Angelo Barksdale’s character arc is completed once he reads The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald) in a prison book group and is clearly affected by its themes. He tells the other inmates that even though Gatsby’s library was full of books, it was all for show. “Gatsby,” D’Angelo explains, “he was who he was. And he did what he did. And because he wasn’t ready to get real with the story, that shit caught up to him.” As a result of his introspection, D’Angelo flushes his dope down the toilet and cuts off contact with the people in his life he feels are making him live a life he doesn’t want. Although D’Angelo ends up being killed, he dies a more genuine person than Gatsby ever was.
Enhancements to the Set
Thoughtfully placed books as props have the power to bring a TV set to life. How the books are displayed is often related to character development. As mentioned above, Leslie Knope’s love for reading is clearly shown by the prominent collection of books she keeps directly behind her desk. Viewers can also catch glimpses of bookshelves in shots of Lisa Simpson and Rory Gilmore’s bedrooms. Some of TV’s most famous bookshelves belong to The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper and Leonard Hofstadter, whose living room proudly displays their shared passion for learning.
Books as props may sometimes be bonus items — objects to fill empty spaces on a set; however, many shows rely on them to bring veracity to the setting. If there weren’t a plethora of bookshelves in the offices of Empirical, the literary publishing house at the heart of Younger, the show would feel inauthentic. While Younger is fictional, shows like The Crown must faithfully recreate an extremely authentic Buckingham Palace, and therefore must include books as props in the correct rooms.
Any prop can help move a story along — and books are no exception. For example, in The Queen’s Gambit, books as props are integral to the story beats in the journey of chess prodigy Beth Harmon. Her passion for the game is first ignited when the custodian at her boarding school, Mr. Shaibel, recognizing that she has a gift, gives her Modern Chess Openings (in the show, it’s the first edition by Richard Clewin Griffith and and John Herbert White). As she continues to hone her skill and learn from different mentors, almost every stage of her path is marked by her finding or receiving books, which also serve as metaphors for her progress.
In the third season of Orange is the New Black, a physical book plays a central role in the dramatic events surrounding a bed bug infestation at the prison. Once the bugs are confirmed, an exterminator comes to investigate. Much to the horror of the prison’s book connoisseurs and library workers, Poussey Washington and Taystee Jefferson, the exterminator spots the first actual bug between the pages of a prison library book (Fighting for Air: The Unknown Adventures of Young Doc Holliday by Jack Kincade). Although Mr. Caputo, the prison’s Director of Human Activities, fights to salvage the library, once he finds out the prison is closing — a significant plot point — he resigns by throwing a book into a fire.
Books as props are also excellent devices for romantic storylines. In Schitt’s Creek, a book about learning to care for animals is the perfect place for Ted Mullens to hide a hotel room key, which he presents to girlfriend Alexis Rose. The key, it turns out, is meant to spare Alexis the trouble of dealing with the multiple animals in Ted’s apartment, which is arguably the first meaningful moment in their on-and-off relationship. In Judging Amy, when Amy Gray is dating a much younger man, her realization that they aren’t compatible gets clearer when he remarks that The Perfect Storm (Sebastian Junger) was not as good as its movie adaptation. Amy’s doubts are cemented when she attempts to bring him a copy of John Cheever’s Oh What a Paradise It Seems and suddenly understands that the treasure in her hands would feel like an obligation to him. She decides not to give him the book, and their next encounter ends in a break-up.
Books as props, as I discovered when I was trying to figure out what David Rose was reading in Schitt’s Creek, are often completely fake, giving the show the chance to work in a wink to the viewers. All of the books in Schitt’s Creek are made-up titles, but are often loosely related to the scenes in which they appear. In one episode, David is reading a book titled A Rare Sophistication: A Higher Aesthetic, which speaks to David’s state-of-mind while he’s missing life in the city. In another episode, David’s only friend, Stevie Budd, is shown enjoying a title that speaks to her inscrutable personality: Cypher Mind. David’s mom, Moira Rose, frequently reads books related to plot lines. In a storyline about a misunderstanding that begins and ends with rapping on doors, Moira Rose is absorbed in a book called A Knock at the Door. In another episode in which Moira forgets a very important secret, she reads A Hint of Amnesia.
Similarly, most of the book titles in Parks and Recreation are fake — and usually meant to score laughs. A memoir by the town’s newscaster Perd Hapley, known for his awkward sentences and superfluous words, is titled The Thing About Me Is, I’m Perd Hapley. Other character-authored books include Genius A’flame: Game of Joans: Joan Callamezzo: a Portrait in Words by Joan Callamezzo and Barely a President: William Henry Harrison’s Thirty-Two Days in the White House by Bill Haggarty. Show viewers also get a kick out of the fact that Leslie Knope keeps the book she authored, Pawnee: The Greatest Town in America, proudly propped up in her office even after a talk show host reveals an error in it.
Books as props can also be inside winks to the cast and crew — and perhaps a few die-hard fans. In one episode of The Wire, for example, Detective Bunk Moreland reads In a Strange City, a novel penned by creator David Simon’s wife, Laura Lippman. In another season, viewers can spot a copy of Generation Kill (Evan Wright), which was at the time being made into a TV miniseries written and produced by David Simon and his co-creater, Ed Burns.
Books As Props: Where to Buy Them
Interested in buying the actual books you’ve spotted in your favorite shows? Try one of the many sites dedicated to selling movie props, including Propabilia, Movie Prop Warehouse, and even Amazon and Ebay. But before you do, keep this advice from Scott Buckwald in mind: “Treat buying props the way you treat buying an autograph — even the most honest dealer could be selling you something that they think is original but may not be.”
Have your eye on one of the fake titles? You can buy at least a couple of them on Amazon: Opening Your Heart To Animals: A Guide To The Benefits Of Caring For Something Other Than Yourself.: Unleash the Power of Compassion! from Schitt’s Creek and Pawnee: The Greatest Town in America from Parks and Recreation.
Now that you know more about the time and thought that go into placing books as the perfect props, the next time you spot one in your favorite show, take a moment to applaud the writers, prop professionals, and actors who use them to bring scenes to life.
And if you’re looking for lists of books referenced in TV shows, start with these Book Riot posts about books featured in Lost and Orange is the New Black.