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'Mad Men' Reading List: Catch Up On the Characters and the Culture

The Best Books About and From the Era

By Published on . 13

By the time "Mad Men" kicks off its fifth season March 25, the show will have been off the air for nearly 17 months. Seventeen months! The last time we saw Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, Gadhafi and Mubarak were still in power, the shores of Louisiana were covered in British Petroleum and Greece was teetering on the edge of economic Armageddon. Okay, maybe everything's not so different.

But the '60s were different. And one of the things we love about "Mad Men" is how thoroughly accurate the show is about the era. If you don't want to miss the references, you've got some educating to do.

'Mad Men'
'Mad Men' Credit: AMC

The 'Mad Men' media economy
You could start by picking up one of the legion of "Mad Men"-themed books that have appeared since the show premiered, such as Janie Bryant's "The Fashion File," (an inside peak at "Mad Men" costuming and more) or "The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook," which is chock-full of recipes and back stories of the show's drinks, deserts and entrees. Then there's Andrew Cracknell's "The Real Mad Men," which is equally chock-full of "the renegades of Madison Avenue and the golden age of advertising."

You can also pick up some of the "guides" to the show, such as Jesse McLean's "Kings of Madison Avenue: The Unofficial Guide To Mad Men" or the Guardian's "The Ultimate Guide to Mad Men," which is supplemented with actor interviews. There's also "Mad Men Unbuttoned," a beautifully illustrated series of essays illuminating the show and time.

Then there's the more pointy-headed analyses, such as "Mad Men and Philosophy" (Wiley) and "Mad Men: Dream Come True TV" (I.B. Tauris), or "Analyzing Mad Men" (McFarland Press) -- the kind of stuff Paul Kinsey would read, or at least tell you he had.

Capturing the ad era
If you want something less about the show, and more about the time, you might as well pick up David Ogilvy's "Confessions of an Advertising Man," the book that prompted Roger Sterling to publish his own memoirs in Season One. ("Sterling's Gold," the collection inspired by that story line, is also available for purchase, and is full of the character's witticisms, wisecracks and inappropriate comments.)

Going back a little further, there's Sloan Wilson's "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" (like "Confessions…", it's been reissued with a distinctly "Mad Men-esque" cover), or Richard Yates' "Revolutionary Road" -- novels that are not only about the '60s, but were an integral part of the decade.

On the non-fiction side, there's Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" which hit the stores in 1963 -- meaning it might have shown up on Betty's nightstand. Good luck with that , Henry...

Jane Maas' 'Mad Women'
Jane Maas' 'Mad Women'

And while we're talking about Betty, you might recall that the house the Drapers sold in last season's finale was on Bullet Park in Ossining, New York. Of course, there is no Bullet Park in Ossining, but there is a 1969 novel of that name by John Cheever, who lived and died there. Any of Cheever's stories are a great way to tap into the zeitgeist of '60s suburbia, and you can find most of them in the Library of America's excellent volume "Collected Stories and Other Writings."

Of course, you could just talk to people who were actually there to find out what it was really like. "It was like what working at Facebook must be like for young people today. ... Or whatever the newest thing is ," said Jane Maas, the former creative director at Ogilvy whose latest book, "Mad Women," chronicles her days on Madison Avenue in the 1960s. "We felt like we were inventing something totally new -- because we were inventing television advertising. And it was fun."

"We were f*ckin' rockstars!" agreed George Lois, the art director behind iconic campaigns at DDB as well as many of Esquire's most famous covers -- and, recently, author of "Damn Good Advice." "We got more publicity -- every magazine, certainly the business pages -- it was a wildfire."

Music, art, literature
Gary Giddins, one of America's most-respected music critics, points to a generational shift in music, too, noting that 1965 to 1966 marked the end of "commercially and artistically successful jazz." "In '64 Coltrane has a huge hit with 'A Love Supreme,' but by '65-'66, it's no longer a matter of adults buying Sinatra and kids buying Elvis," he said. "The Beatles were making it more intellectual, more adult, more acceptable by adults."

You can track that evolution yourself by dipping into Ian MacDonald's "Revolution in the Head," a song-by -song cultural analysis of the Beatles' back pages that is more addictive than "Angry Birds." Or as a sort of counterpoint, check out Joe Boyd's "White Bicycles" -- a lovely personal journal of his journey through the music of the '60s.

Robin Cembalest, the executive editor at Art News, said that while the mid-60s marked "the first really important post-minimalist exhibit at the Jewish Museum with artists like Eva Hesse, you've still got Norman Rockwell painting 'Saturday Evening Post' covers. Andrew Wyeth is one of the most-popular artists in America, but Picasso is still painting, and even Duchamp is still around. In this moment, you're really seeing a little bit of everything."

Lorin Stein, editor-in-chief of The Paris Review -- whose magazine published interviews with Pinter, Bellow and Ginsburg in '65 and '66 -- takes a slightly different tack. "I think it was the last time in America when 'elitism' was not necessarily a bad thing. Saul Bellow's "Herzog" wins the National Book Award in 1965, and it's a huge bestseller -- and it's not an easy book. I mention "A Love Supreme" and he nods. "I think it was really the tail end of the moment of maximum social mobility, when the establishment was the most relaxed, the high-water mark of liberal consciousness."

Six years and a few thousand miles later, Hunter Thompson wrote about that high-water mark in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas."

"So now, less than five years later," he wrote in 1971, "you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark -- that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back." And maybe that 's what we should keep our eyes open for. That wave.

Because while we don't know what Matt Weiner has planned for us, we do know what's on the horizon for the folks at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce: My Lai, MLK, RFK, Manson, Altamont. We know that wave is going to break. We know that the center will not hold.

And maybe the thing to remember when we turn on the TV on Sunday, is that what we're watching are the final years of that center desperately trying to hold. Trying desperately to hold as America inexorably slouches towards Bethlehem…

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