1. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood by Peter Biskind
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is the best book I’ve ever read about film. Granted, I’m partial to its focus – gritty 70s American cinema – but Biskind’s history turns Hollywood’s transition out of the oppressive studio system into riveting drama regardless of your interest level. Profiling all of the era’s many heroes, including Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, Lucas, De Niro, and Nicholson, and based on hundreds of shockingly candid interviews, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls perfectly balances guilty pleasure and informative read. There’s plenty of salacious behind-the-scenes debauchery (only 75% of which involves Dennis Hopper), but Biskind also succinctly and clearly explains what caused this explosion in groundbreaking filmmaking and how it has shaped today’s cinematic landscape.
2. Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, as Told By Its Stars, Writers and Guests by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller
Live from New York is, not coincidentally, one of many oral histories on this list (for the uninitiated, an oral history is a piece of non-fiction writing culled mostly from interviews with various knowledgeable sources and featuring minimal authorial interjection). Oral histories are a perfect fit for pop culture sagas because nearly all of the interviewees are either outright celebrities or at least recognizable figures in their field. Case in point, Live from New York, which beguiles fans with excerpts from a never-ending list of beloved participants, ranging from megawatt stars like Bill Murray and Will Ferrell to personal favorites like Tim Meadows and Norm Macdonald (Eddie Murphy is none-too-conspicuously absent). You can’t go more than a few paragraphs without getting insight from another comedic legend, and there’s plenty of the infamous gossip inside fans of the shows have come to expect. The authors updated the book before the 40th anniversary with 100 new pages of content.
Another oral history, Everybody Loves Our Town tells the story of grunge music’s ascent from the garages of Seattle to the top of America’s music charts in the early 90s. For rock fans of the period in question, the book boasts an incredible line-up of participants, including members of Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden. But to its credit, Everybody Loves Our Town doesn’t rest comfortably on the well-covered legacies of those aforementioned bands that broke into the mainstream and became staples of classic rock stations. There is also a lot – warning: a lot – of attention paid to bands who helped lay the foundation, as well as bands too dysfunctional or eccentric to make MTV’s rotation. It’s a great way to learn about some new (old) music, and I credit it with getting me into bands like Mudhoney and The Melvins.
4. & 5. Consider the Lobster and Other Essays and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments by David Foster Wallace
Okay, so I’m kind of stretching by calling these two collections of essays from David Foster Wallace “pop culture books,” but I like to think awkwardly shoehorning DFW into every Thought Catalog article is my cross to bear. Neither of these books consists entirely of pop culture examinations, but both feature some sterling non-fiction prose about American culture and the darker implications of our choices in distraction and entertainment. Consider the Lobster includes incisive and often hilarious essays on the porn industry’s AVN Awards ceremony, talk radio, sports autobiographies, the ethics of eating lobster, and John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign. A Supposedly Fun Thing… covers state fairs, cruise ships, pro tennis, TV’s impact on modern fiction, and filmmaker David Lynch (a personal favorite piece). These essays just might change your life.
6. I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum
Featuring excerpts from interviews with nearly 400 artists, directors, VJs, and executives, I Want My MTV is full of fascinating details and riveting anecdotes. The subject is not as immediately enthralling as some of the others on this list – I am not passionate about MTV’s corporate brand the way that I am about rock music, sketch comedy, or 70s filmmakers – but it’s also one that most Americans between the ages of 20 and 50 can hardly deny played a huge role in their adolescence. This is a very well-compiled volume, and fittingly enough for an MTV history, the music often takes a backseat to surprisingly interesting tales of visionary business sense and political in-fighting amongst the network’s executives. Still, this is worth a read just for its depictions of some of the most hilariously awful music videos of the 80s (the entire chapter devoted to Billy Squier’s “disturbingly effeminate” video for “Rock Me Tonite” is an absolute must-read).
There is no shortage of books about pro wrestling – autobiographies (both legitimate and clearly ghostwritten), histories, and exposes – but The Squared Circle is the most well-written I’ve come across yet. Wisely eschewing all-encompassing scope for in-depth essays on an eclectic mix of wrestlers (including legendary figures and lesser-known grapplers, most of them deceased), David Shoemaker writes with a critical eye and a fan’s passion. Each wrestler’s saga allows Shoemaker to make a larger point about the wrestling business, exploring that simultaneously glorious and grimy alternate universe which makes mythological gods out of men (and women) and then leaves them discarded in the gutter. I learned plenty of fascinating new tidbits about old stars, federations, and feuds while reading The Squared Circle and I enjoyed Shoemaker’s take on the psychological and symbolic underpinnings of some of wrestling’s most storied personas.