Books are a Trigger for Billions

Perhaps not as sexy as the food or the music, nor as readily noticeable, is the backdrop of books used in a show. Shows that care about such things, like Billions, speak volumes with those carefully chosen volumes. It’s about setting the stage, providing props for the characters and the action. Most interestingly, the placement of books is about saying a thing or two about the character who owns them, in a language both visual and textual (if you look closely enough :)) Alternatively, barring such esoteric “meaning”, at the very least, books laying about can be fun Easter eggs that may say a thing or two about the folks who put the show together.

So, join me as we browse through the bookshelves of Billions.

Let’s face it, most books, however cleverly chosen and placed, are often no more than set decor. The more discerning and character-driven the choices, the more “real” the setting created by them. And setting matters!

Books can, sometimes quite deliciously, play a role in the story. In this season of Billions we got a starring role, over at least a couple of episodes, played by Winston Churchill’s six volume series, The Second World War.

Just how did these books manage to drive a plot, you ask? Well, they were prized first editions, transcribed with a personal note from Churchill himself to Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. They were books Chuck had to sell in order to pay for his own apartment, which Wendy insisted he finally get, no matter how much he stalled on accepting the reality of their separation.

The same volumes were then snapped up in a petulant show of revenge by Bobby.

Chuck later saw a similar beautiful set of these books on magnanimous magnate Foley’s bookshelf.

And when he eventually learned that it was Bobby who had purchased his Churchill set, Chuck blew a gasket and vowed to beat Axe, come hell or Ice Juice.

Sticking this peripherally bookish shot in here just because, solely in the interest of saying: Good grief, but David Strathairn is a handsome man.

Now, let’s continue the book tour with some other tomes in D.A. Rhoades’ collection. As you would expect in the office of a district attorney, bookshelves in Chuck’s office are predictably filled with volumes of law.

He does have one personal shelf, though, directly behind his desk, containing 8 books, 6 of which I was able to identity. Sandwiched between brass eagle head bookends, are:

The Price of Silence: The Duke Lacrosse Scandal, the Power of the Elite, and the Corruption of Our Great Universities

American Passage: The History of Ellis Island

Joe DiMaggio : The Hero’s Life

Supreme City: How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America

Morals and Politics

The Power of Citizenship: Why John F. Kennedy Matters to a New Generation

On the other side of the D.A.’s office is some more personal shelf space. I was hard-pressed to read all the titles. One does jump out:

Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898

And, across the room:

David C. Unger’s The Emergency State: America’s Pursuit of Absolute Security at All Costs

Chuck’s bedside reading follows similar themes:

One Nation under Law: America’s Early National Struggles to Separate Church and State

Next, let’s move to Wendy’s world. When Gus moves into Wendy’s office most of her shelves are bare. Tellingly, he doesn’t seem to have any of his own books to replace hers. Later his shelves do fill up with slim volumes, none of which I could identify.

Wendy’s “little, well-appointed” office does have stacks of some worn titles, most of which I can’t identify. Did spot a couple.

Termed a “masterpiece of warrior wisdom,” there’s Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life.

Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences 

When Wendy is back at Axe Capital, she re-shelves her favorites where they rightfully belong. I spotted Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works because that one that has been on my own shelves for years.

Below it, there’s a book prominently facing front. The print is unreadable to my eyes at whatever resolution I try. At first, the cover art suggested it may be something by Malcolm Gladwell, whose books sport mostly white covers with a image of an isolated object. Alas, I couldn’t find a Gladwell book with a half-eaten pencil on the cover. No need to despair, though, because thanks to the wonderful interconnectedness of…well…everything, a scroll through Gladwell’s books lead eventually to the exact book on Wendy’s shelf:

Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow 

Strategically poised at the level of Bobby’s face when he barges into Wendy’s office to interrupt her session with Mafee is:

Bret Lott, Fathers, Sons, and Brothers. Bit of blurb triggers a compulsion to add this title to an already ungovernable bucket list of Books I Need to Read: “This is a book about men and a book for anyone who knows a man – and the boy in him.”

Below this book, you may notice a spine with the name “Stanley” in red. I’m guessing that’s for Thomas J. Stanley who wrote a bunch of “Millionaire” books. Albeit, most of his covers were the green and white of money, not the gray and red of Wendy’s book, so take this bit of forensics with a grain of salt: Stanley.

More spines are revealed when Taylor and Deb have their sessions with Wendy.

Jack Welsh, Winning

One that I remember seeing often on best seller lists and such in the mid-late 80’s:

Iacocca: An Autobiography, about “an American legend, a straight-shooting businessman who brought Chrysler back from the brink and in the process became a media celebrity, newsmaker, and a man many had urged to run for president.”

This next one is a good anchor book, perhaps an indication that Wendy doesn’t mind at all dabbling outside her comfort zones.

History of Modern Art

Oh, and what is that book level with Taylor’s second entry into Wendy’s office?

Waller Randy Newell, What is a Man?: 3000 Years of Wisdom on the Art of Manly Virtue

Goodness, these books aren’t just set decor afterall, are they. Color me reading-too-much-into-it, but placing such titles in the same sight lines as characters for which they may (or may not) “speak” is a stroke of brilliance, particularly for us close watchers. So, thank you, show. NICE!

Wish I had more luck with the rest of Wendy’s shelves, which seem to be the most interesting by far, and, may arguably drive the philosophy behind the entire show.

As for Dr. Rhoades off-campus reading, here’s a fun find. Wendy is seen reading Haruki Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, the same novel, albeit with a different cover, which we saw on Bobby’s bedside table last season in 1.03: Yumtime.

So, Wendy’s off hours bedside reading may have some interesting overlap with Bobby’s, if his bedside table is to be believed. But, really, do Wendy and Bobby read the same books? Maybe! Too soon to tell (I like to think).

More likely, though, is that any link from Billions to Haruki Murakami is a cleverly placed homage to one of Brian Koppleman’s favorite writers.

Let’s not leave Lara out of this bookish who’s who, even though the cookbooks in her kitchen may belong to Chef Ryan, for all we know.

Yotam Ottolenghi, Plenty: Vibrant Vegetable Recipes from London’s Ottolenghi  (Damianista spotted this one back in episode 5: Currency)

The Essential James Beard Cookbook: 450 Recipes That Shaped the Tradition of American Cooking

Then, the book which appears to have a box cover with a spoon on the spine may be this one: The Silver Spoon New Edition

Wherefore fair Robert Axelrod in this mix of literary pursuits? Methinks Bobby doesn’t read much. He likes numbers more than words. Words are simply meant to be in service to go from here to there, to make something known, to assert a position such that it need never be questioned. Anything more subtle than that, or requiring more negotiation, is a pain in the ass and a waste of time. There were some stately coffee table art books behind his desk last season, but even those are gone this year. He reads to his kids: Harry Potter. Maybe he used to read for himself at some point in his life? Only time will tell!

10 thoughts on “Books are a Trigger for Billions”

  1. Fantastic post! To quote Charlie Crews, everything is connected. And this post is a wonderful example of that!

    It was easy for me to spot Ottolenghi’s Plenty because it is one of our favorite cookbooks but what you have done here is no less than stellar! And, hey, you have GOOD EYES!

    I was looking at Churchill’s Second World War II — the copy he signed for his cook — in the Churchill War Rooms last week 😀 They even had a “Never give in…” magnet in the museum shop. I went with “Victory is in the kitchen” one 🙂 Looking at his books, from History of Jazz to History of NYC (he studied his Boss Tweed well!) I see at least partially why Wendy went for Chuck. I think I may have, too. And, being the daughter of a lawyer, I am so used to shelves with Volumes of Law. LOVE IT!

    So cool that you have spotted Kahneman’s “popular” book on Wendy’s shelves. Kahneman is the father of behavioral economics, a Nobel laureate and besides I wrote a paper based on his work!

    Brett Lott’s book should be Wendy’s go-to to figure out the boys in all these men at Axe Cap — in particular Bobby, but she knows him well enough not to go to any book, I guess 😀 I wish they also had placed Peter Pan next to it 🙂 Oh my I just love this post so much. SO MUCH.

    I never thought Bobby would read much. After all, he is the guy who saw Rocky 7 times and never saw Citizen Kane 😀 Bobby and Damian cannot be more different in their reading habits, and hey, I really look forward to a post about books Damian has read. We saw some of them in his hand or under his arm and he sometimes gives interviews in front of a book shelf at his home. We know some of his favorite writers, too. Well, are you tempted already? 😀

    As much as he does not read for himself, I love it that Bobby reads Harry Potter — another personal favorite — to his kids: “That Dolores Umbridge is a real bitch.” Indeed 😀

    Finally, I want to think Bobby and Wendy have casual convos about what they read at the moment and Bobby recommends Murakami’s “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki to her! 😀 I don’t think anybody but you has noticed they were reading the same book.

    And you know what I am doing at this very moment? Leaving home to go to the bookstore to pick up a copy of Murakami’s latest “Men without Women.” Cheers <3

    1. When the show aired, I tweeted something about sharing Chuck’s book lust for Churchill. After reading his first book about his time in the Boer war, I’ve had the rest of his works on my To Read list for ages. Someday, on a beach somewhere…

      Hehe. you write papers on behavioral economics, I write papers on TV shows.

      I’m torn about posting Damian’s reading. Seems even more personal than any of the other stuff we post about. Suffice it to say, I’m pretty confident that his reading is much more varied and runs deeper than anything Bobby could manage.

      Meant to add pics of book jackets to this post, and will do so after the coffee kicks in this morning.

      1. Churchill has a Nobel Prize in literature. He should be a GOOD writer. I confess I have not read his work.

  2. Thanks for this! Amazing to see how thought has gone into this set design. I found the same thing when diving into the artwork that is featured on this show, bloody interesting read:
    aaaaaaand the book with the spoon is the all time classic The Silver Spoon:
    Looking forward to the rest of your work!

    1. Wow, fantastic article, thanks for sharing!! ARTNet was one of the magazines I used to thumb thru on a regular basis once upon a time. Time to go back! Maybe we can do a comparable treatment of Wendy’s office and home. For example, in her office she has a memorable piece, small square painting, almost monochromatic, with a citibank logo in one corner. It looks so familiar and I tried to identify it, but to no avail. Time to go hunting!

Join the conversation!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.