Books have long been used in TV and movies to emphasise character: what they read can tell us about their interests, their desires, their insecurities, and more. Books can be used as plot points, in conversation and as background.
So, we started purposely looking for them. The more we did, the more we found, until it became something of a contest, looking for the subtlest invocations of character possible via books that are neither spoken of aloud or, in some cases, whose covers are even fully shown.
Below, we’ve collected a dozen or so of the books we almost missed – or plain forgot about – in some of our favourite series and films. Have we overlooked any?
More than a few Penguin Modern Classics are included in the television adaptation of Sally Rooney's debut novel, Conversations With Friends: episode seven includes references to both Claudia Rankine's Citizen and the poetry of Louise Glück. But it's Childhood, the first entry in Tove Ditlevsen's Copenhagen Trilogy, that is featured most prominently, held up by lead character Frances in the still below - albeit, intriguingly, the US version.
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney, spotted in Succession (2019)
Only the eagle-eyed – and those quick on the pause button – will be able to tell that that’s Sally Rooney’s debut novel Shiv Roy is reading on the beach in the series two finale of Succession, but the back cover of the paperback gives it away. Combined this spot with the one above, and you've got intertextuality at its finest.
There are few shows as rich for book-spotting as The White Lotus, HBO’s buzzed-about new tragicomic exploration of class set at a five-star resort. The show’s creators put plenty of deliberation into which characters would read each book: as a result, the show’s characters read a wide span of books, from The Portable Nietzsche to Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams to Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, in order to say something about its characters and their states of mind.
A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft, spotted in Sex Education (2019)
Another show with a penchant for intertextuality, Sex Education has enough book references that there are whole articles written about the titles they discuss. In the above frame, Maeve dozes next to a copy of Mary Wollstonecraft’s iconic first-wave feminism treatise A Vindication of the Rights of Women, but look out for references in later seasons to works by Pablo Neruda, Carmen Maria Machado, and many more.
Grimm’s Fairy Tales by the Brothers Grimm, spotted in Toy Story (1995)
When Toy Story’s Woody takes to the Tinkertoy barrel to make an address to his peers, he does so in front of a shelf of books – all of which, except for Grimm’s Fairy Tales, are named after previously released animated shorts by Pixar.
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, spotted in Heathers (1989)
There is a persistent fan theory that 1989 dark comedy Heathers is basically a remake of Moby-Dick, with Veronica filling the role of Ishmael and the Heathers that of the white whale. Whether or not that’s the case, you can spot Moby-Dick in the hands of Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty) during the film’s famous croquet scene.
Cameron Diaz takes a big stack of books to read (or not read, according to the film) during her holiday in, well, The Holiday. And it’s a real smorgasbord: besides the above titles, she also brings an Eckhart Tolle book, only the third (?) Harry Potter book, a Bob Dylan memoir and… a book about Abraham Lincoln’s ‘political genius’.
A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking, spotted in Harry Potter and the Prison of Azkaban (2004)
And speaking of Harry Potter: in the Leaky Cauldron, the watering hole of seemingly the entire wizarding world, a customer is quickly shown reading Stephen Hawking’s influential masterpiece A Brief History of Time – despite Hawking being (lowers voice) a muggle.
Holidays in Hell by P.J. O’Rourke, spotted in Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001)
For most of Bridget Jones’s Diary, our hapless heroine is having a pretty rough go of things – what else would she be reading but a book titled Holidays in Hell?
Complicity by Iain Banks, spotted in Hot Fuzz (2007)
In Hot Fuzz, a desk sergeant is reading Complicity by Iain Banks, a story about a creative serial killer – but, you know, no spoilers.
Francis Ford Coppola’s epic film adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness has deep and tangled literary roots. The two books depicted on Kurtz’s desk in the film have intertextual meaning: The Golden Bough was an important work on comparative religion by James Frazer, while From Ritual to Romance is a study of the King Arthur legends, highly influenced by Frazer’s work. Both were big influences on modernist poet T.S. Eliot, who Kurtz mentions in the film but whose works are never shown.
Ivanhoe by Walter Scott, spotted in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
In David Fincher’s 2008 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s celebrated 1922 short story about a man whose life is lived in reverse – from old age to childhood – Button can be seen devouring Walter Scott’s classic Ivanhoe as he hurtles expectantly towards middle age. Fun fact: ‘Ivanhoe’ is also the name of the Melbourne, Australia suburb where the film’s Cate Blanchett grew up.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, spotted in The Shining (1980)
If any director is known for imbuing nearly everything in the mise en scene with meaning, it’s Stanley Kubrick, so Wendy Torrance (Shelley Duvall) reading The Catcher in the Rye early on in The Shining has long been a point of debate among the film’s fans. Is it referencing the film’s theme of protecting childhood innocence? Is it about isolation and mental health? In any case, there it is in Duvall’s hands; deep theorists, start your engines.
What to Expect When You’re Expecting by Heidi Murkoff, spotted in Arrested Development (2004)
In series two of the cult comedy hit Arrested Development, George Bluth Sr. hides from the law in the attic. As his isolation deepens, so does George’s strange behaviour: with nothing to wear, he begins cycling through the maternity clothing left behind by his deceased daughter-in-law; with nothing to read, he’s shown devouring Heidi Murkoff’s pre-natal must-read What to Expect When You’re Expecting. It’s an extremely subtle but incredible visual gag, and a perfect example of TV book-spotting at its finest.
Have we missed any great books subtly inserted into great TV or films? Email firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know.