Instead of Watching That, Read This

You’d think four seasons of Black Mirror would have taught us to cut screens out of our lives entirely. But even as episodes of that chilling anthology series have detailed the horrors our phones, tablets, and flatscreens have wrought upon the world, there have been zero episodes about the dangers of reading a book.

So, here’s our modest proposal: today, instead of watching your favorite show, read a book instead. In other words, go old school (even if you’re reading on a tablet or phone). To make it as easy as possible, here are suggestions for 10 books to read based on your favorite shows.

Show: Grey’s Anatomy. What to Read Instead: The House of God, by Samuel Shem

This show has been on the air for more than 13 years and more than 300 episodes. An entire generation has grown up watching it, and your one take-away ought to be that if you ever regain consciousness in an ambulance, you should immediately demand they take you anywhere but Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital, where explosions, shootings, and drug-addicted doctors are alarmingly common. If you want a break from Anatomy’s soapy shenanigans, Shem’s 1978 novel remains a hilarious, moving, and shocking glimpse of what it’s like to be a resident in a major hospital. While it was deemed raunchy and risqué back then, in the modern day it’s less salacious that your average Grey’s, but with a more realistic pedigree.

Show: This is Us. What to Read Instead: This is Where I Leave You, by Jonathan Tropper

The emotional manipulation employed by This is Us is so effective, you might burst into happy tears just thinking about it. But if you ever want a break from the softly plinking guitar soundtrack and the time-hopping tricks the show likes to play on us, Tropper’s novel is another bracingly funny look at a family in crisis, as the Foxmans gather for the funeral of the family patriarch, dragging their own personal dramas behind them. Dead dad? Check. Smothering, too-perfect mother? Check. Siblings still sorting through their unusual childhood and old grudges? Check. But, importantly, exactly zero hand-me-down crockpots.

Show:The Americans. What to Read Instead: Charm School, by Nelson DeMille

The Americans is a taut Cold War-era story combining spy thriller action with family drama and psychological mystery—you can never be completely certain what any character is really thinking, including teenage Paige, who has been evolving into the spy life in often chilling ways. When you need a break from the excruciating tension, however, why not hit up one of the masters of the spy thriller, and his story about how the Russians actually train their spies to blend in with American society? With captured American POWs as teachers, Russian agents are taught how to blend in, but things get complicated, as always, by personal relationships. It’s a precursor to The Americans that offers a different take on the subject, delivered with DeMille’s expert sense of tension and plotting. See also: Tinker Tailor Slider Spy by John le Carré. While this spy classic doesn’t have the action that The Americans often trades in, it’s packed with the paranoia and intelligence the show offers.

Show: Black Mirror. What to Read Instead: In Persuasion Nation, by George Saunders

This generation’s Twilight Zone specializes in smart, ink-dark stories about how technology can pervert and undermine the fundamentals of society and our personal relationships—but sometimes watching a TV show about how screens are ruining us is a little, um, creepy, so reading some Saunders is a much better idea. The master of the modern short story, Saunders has a knack for the sort of weird subversions and inversions that Black Mirror trades in, but with a literary bent, and In Persuasion Nation has a focus on technology that lines it up perfectly with the anthology series.

Show: Stranger Things. What to Read Instead: The Boys of Summer, by Richard Cox

You might be tempted to namecheck Stephen King when it comes to readalikes for the hit Netflix show about the unluckiest kids in the unluckiest town in Indiana, but that’s too easy. Suggesting King isn’t wrong, it’s just obvious. Instead, read Cox’s brilliant novel about kids who survive a catastrophic tornado but find their lives altered as a result—especially Todd, who wakes up from a coma several years later…and different. A musician, he begins playing songs that will one day be big pop hits—but which haven’t been released yet. The other four boys are led into a dark game that lasts the rest of their lives.

Show: Peaky Blinders. What to Read Instead: Billy Bathgate, by E.L. Doctorow

The cast of this show about a brutal criminal gang in 1920s Birmingham is so universally charismatic it’s sometimes hard to remember they’re portraying sociopaths and murderers. When you get tired of the endless slow-motion shots of Cillian Murphy and the gang walking through factory floors that apparently produce only smoke and sparks, read Doctorow’s brilliant novel about the first flush of organized crime in America, as Billy is adopted by the infamous Dutch Schultz and becomes a part of a terrifying criminal underground in early-20th century America.

Show: Big Bang Theory. What to Read Instead: Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

The number-one situation comedy on television right now is a deluge of nerd jokes and pop culture references, but since it’s a sitcom, there’s a distinct lack of stakes—everything resolves within its 22-minute run time, more or less. Instead, read Ernest Cline’s awesome novel, which is also a deluge of nerd jokes and pop culture references, but set in a dystopian sci-fi future where that pop culture expertise is actually essential knowledge for saving the world. Basically, Ready Player One is what the guys on TBBT dream about.

Show: Rick and Morty. What to Read Instead: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

Rick and Morty is an awesome show that subverts sci-fi tropes while celebrating what makes sci-fi cool in the first place. It’s one of the smartest things on TV, and it manages that without sacrificing humor, which ranges from the subtly brilliant to the tawdry and scatological. Enter Douglas Adams’ classic sci-fi series. Because Adams’ books contain plenty of super smart jokes based on everything from history to physics to pop culture—yet it all also hangs together as a story with real emotional stakes.

Show: Scandal. What to Read Instead: Primary Colors, by Anonymous

If you’re a Gladiator you’re probably exhausted by now, what with all the twists, turns, betrayals, and confrontations Shonda Rhimes has orchestrated for her political insider drama. Take a step back from your screen and read a book born from a real-life political circus, along with real-life fixers and damage control experts, and a real-life presidential candidate (and later president) who got himself into plenty of trouble and needed a lot of fixing. Although still officially attributed to an anonymous author, we all now know it was journalist Joe Klein, and his book offers the opportunity to judge just how close Scandal gets to real life (hint: not very close).

Show: Atlanta. What to Read Instead: The Autobiography of Gucci Mane, by Gucci Mane

Gucci Mane wrote his autobiography while in prison, and reading it is both inspiring and exhausting. Mane somehow found the time to make records, groom up-and-coming artists, sell drugs, do drugs, and do fifteen other things simultaneously—all while heading in and out of jail and various rehabs. His story is a real-life Atlanta native struggling with all the themes of the brilliant show, and it offers a nice palate cleanser after the often surreal twists that the show takes while also being a straight-up fascinating story of true genius.

No one’s saying you shouldn’t watch your favorite shows—but watching them and reading some great books? That’s the best of both worlds.

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