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Pop Culture 101: Time-Travel Through the Decades with 7 Nonfiction Reads

by  | September 14
Sesame Street characters celebrating

I consider history to be one of my great loves in life, and I have American Girl dolls to thank for that! Playing with Molly in particular sparked my interest in World War II, which inspired me to look up propaganda and thus become immersed in the world of cultural history. One of my favorite parts about studying popular culture is uncovering the origin stories of how cultural phenomena came to be, as well as analyzing the political and social landscapes that influenced their creation. These seven titles take a look at the biggest cultural phenomena of a respective decade and their lasting influence on popular culture—illustrating the historical moments that brought them into existence and to the forefront.

Barnum

Barnum

by Robert Wilson

1870s

P.T. Barnum has seen a return to cultural relevance as of late; although the traveling circus that once bore his name became defunct in 2017, that same year saw the release of the wildly successful The Greatest Showman, with Hugh Jackman dazzling moviegoers with his depiction of Barnum.

Robert Wilson’s Barnum takes a deeper dive into the life and times of P.T. Barnum, looking both beyond his glorification in The Greatest Showman and his reputation as a deceitful “humbug” to bring forth a fuller picture of his life. Wilson takes readers through Barnum’s multifaceted career as operator of the American Museum, politician and temperance advocate, and ultimately founder of “The Greatest Show on Earth”—and by doing so, allows readers to see Barnum’s tremendous impact on popular culture.

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Disney's Land

Disney's Land

by Richard Snow

1950s

There is (almost) nothing more interesting to me than Disney history. The expansiveness of the Disney canon, its pervasiveness in childhood culture, and the difficulty distinguishing myth and fact about Walt Disney and other key figures in Disney lore keep attracting me to this subsection of historical study.

In Disney’s Land, popular historian Richard Snow takes on the monumental task of writing the history of the Disneyland theme park, from conception and creation to its disastrous opening day and subsequent legacy. Snow discusses the lack of support Disney initially received for his idea (even his brother and his wife were not in favor of him opening the park); how he acquired the initial funds to open the park, and the building of Disneyland, which was completed in a year and a day. Disney’s Land is an excellent reminder that the history behind the creation of something so legendary can be even more interesting than its myths.

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Space Odyssey

Space Odyssey

by Michael Benson

1960s

I am not a movie person, but there is one movie that I make a point to watch every year, and that is 2001: A Space Odyssey. Every time I watch it, I am consistently blown away by both the sweeping visuals of outer space and Stanley Kubrick’s exacting attention to detail. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention that the HAL-9000 is one of the greatest—if not the greatest—movie villains of all time.

Michael Benson’s Space Odyssey takes readers from the film’s genesis to its legacy today, detailing Kubrick’s goals to make a first-rate science fiction film after his Cold War satire Dr. Strangelove; his collaboration with author Arthur C. Clarke, and the pioneering of special effects. Space Odyssey also includes several previously unpublished interviews and photographs that provide a comprehensive glimpse at the making of 2001: A Space Odyssey, giving fans such as me and movie buffs alike an even greater appreciation for the legendary film.

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Sunny Days

Sunny Days

by David Kamp

1970s

It is rare to come across one who was not influenced by some sort of educational children’s television program during their childhood. Whether they learned the preamble to the U.S. Constitution through Schoolhouse Rock! or how to be a good neighbor through Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, these programs have taught millions of youths, and in the process transformed television and childhoods forever.

What most don’t know about, however, are the origins to these beloved programs. In Sunny Days, David Kamp takes us to the beginnings of Sesame Street, which started as an experiment to see if television could better prepare disadvantaged preschoolers for kindergarten, and examines the cultural and political landscape that allowed it and other educational children’s shows to thrive. Through rigorous research and interviews with figures from Sesame Street, Free to Be...You and Me, and The Electric Company, Sunny Days sheds light on how these revolutionary television programs became staples in American childhood culture.

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As You Wish

As You Wish

by Cary Elwes

1980s

I must admit the first time I ever saw The Princess Bride, I did not get what the hype was about. My middle school self thought it was “just okay.” However, upon a rewatch two years later, I found this film’s magic, rooted in undeniable silliness, fun, and iconic lines. Any previous dislike I had of this film seemed inconceivable.

As You Wish is the perfect behind-the-scenes look at this beloved classic, written by the man who portrayed Westley himself. The book’s brand-new stories and pictures from the making of The Princess Bride, as well as interviews with Elwes’s costars, will give casual fans and devout followers a greater appreciation for one of the most popular American movies of all time.

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Seinfeldia

Seinfeldia

by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

1990s

How did a show about a New York comedian talking with his friends inspire forty million viewers to tune in weekly and ultimately create massive waves through popular culture? In Seinfeldia, Jennifer Keishin Armstrong first takes us to the origins of the television phenomenon—a Korean deli where up-and-coming stand-up comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David dreamed up a TV show about their everyday occurrences based in their observational comedic roots. Television executives were skeptical but took a chance—and it took off.

Seinfeldia goes behind the scenes and looks at the makings of still-relevant episodes, dishes out show trivia and gossip, and reveals what the actors have been up to since the show ended. For fans of Seinfeld and those who want to learn more about how the show still has staying power, Seinfeldia is your go-to guide. If you can’t get enough Seinfeld, do not fret, because Jerry Seinfeld’s memoir and first book in twenty-five years, Is This Anything?, will be releasing on October 6!

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Bowie's Bookshelf

Bowie's Bookshelf

by John O'Connell

Every decade because it transcends time

With a career that spanned a little over half a century and an artistic influence that left an indelible mark on popular culture, it is safe to say that David Bowie is timeless. For an artist who adopted several unique personas such as Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, and the Thin White Duke, I have often wondered where Bowie drew his inspiration from.

Unbeknownst to some, David Bowie was quite the bibliophile, with books serving as a guiding force in his artistic endeavors. Just over two years before he died, he released a list of the 100 most influential books he read, ranging from classics such as The Iliad and Lady Chatterley’s Lover to obscure cartoons and satirical magazines. In Bowie’s Bookshelf, music journalist John O’Connell breaks down every book on the famed rock star’s list in a short essay, analyzing how each title found its way into Bowie’s enduring art.

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Sharon Van Meter is a Marketing Assistant with Simon & Schuster, and enjoys reading historical nonfiction, "the classics," and dystopian science fiction. She is passionate about history, social justice, and stand-up comedy, and in her free time enjoys writing, baking, and cultivating her Pinterest boards. Sharon also has a large collection of novelty socks.