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Turns out, all those shows you’ve been binge-watching may actually be an ideal basis for learning a whole new subject.
If you’ve ever found topics like philosophy, theology, psychology or mathematics intriguing, but too dry, difficult, or time-consuming to digest on their own, consider these books that use your favorite shows, movies, and even video games as a reference for navigating the basics of popular subjects.
Explaining new concepts and theories to beginners is a whole lot easier (and way more fun) when it involves scenarios, characters, and plot points that you’re already familiar with from your favorite episodes and storylines. The Simpsons, for example, provides countless examples of characters displaying (or often lacking) the core ethics and virtues written about by the great philosophers like Nietzsche, Kant, and Aristotle.
The books cast a wide net beyond just animation and philosophy or math though, connecting Star Wars to the teachings of Buddhism, Mad Men to the study of God and religion, and exploring the psychological behaviors (and disorders) of comic book heroes and villains.
Not only is it an opportunity to acquire new knowledge, but these books also uncover deeper layers of a joke or plot that you may not have fully picked up on the first time around. After reading these, you’ll be ready to re-binge the series and understand new references, character motivations, nuances, and even what books the writers themselves were reading, when creating the series.
Here are five great pop culture philosophy and psychology books to pick up, for a fun and entertaining way to dive into often-serious subject matter.
1. The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D’oh! of Homer
This book focuses on what many fans would consider the “golden years” of The Simpsons, up to season 12, delving in to the most iconic episodes and all the rich references densely packed in to the writing and visuals.
The collection of essays written by philosophy professors lays out various basic teachings, each explaining an overview of a philosophical concept, then connecting it to a familiar Simpsons situation, sometimes even relating it back to the current culture of American life. The book explores whether Marge and Homer act accordingly with Aristotle’s virtues, how Lisa’s experiences represent the rise of anti-intellectualism, what Mr. Burns’ endless capitalistic greed tells us about fleeting happiness, and how a non-verbal character like Maggie can still display The Virtue of Silence. Along the way, the essays also dig in to the makeup of the show’s quick sight gags and scriptwriting, and how allusions to past pop-culture references can create a type of pleasurable camaraderie amongst viewers who are “in” on the joke.
While The Simpsons has always been an intelligent satire of everything in modern suburban life, the book keeps the comedy in mind and doesn’t take itself too seriously, while also reaffirming the timeless core human values of community, good neighbors like Ned Flanders, and a loyal (even if dysfunctional) family.
2. The Universe is Indifferent: Theology, Philosophy, and Mad Men
Theology is the study of God and religion, which makes Mad Men, a show based on corporate greed, materialism, capitalism, deceit and consumerism, an interesting choice to use as a guide.
But the author here makes it work, diving into the subsets of theology and the real-life sociological effects it has on gender roles, social trends and the changes they bring about. The examples are brought to life via the show’s characters, who live out the effects in their storylines against the backdrop of 1950s/1960s America, taking us from the prosperous and predictable early years to the political and personal wild ride of later seasons.
The result is a read that’s a reflection of our own country, culture, and beliefs, reliving the most important moments of the show and American history in a new, old way.
3. The Dharma of Star Wars
Star Wars naturally has roots of inspiration that seem to overlap with Buddhism. “The Force,” for example, is meant to be an ambiguous but inspiring term for the larger power, whether spirituality, nature, or the battle between good and evil, but not necessarily an explicitly labeled “God.”
So it makes sense when author Matthew Bortolin goes back to these roots, and uses the first six films in the series to provide a nicely written overview of the principles of Buddhism, entwined with the Star Wars saga, including mindfulness, suffering and ignorance (the Dark Side), the causes of suffering, the five aggregates of self, interdependency, and karma. Bortolin is knowledgable across both subjects, and explains it in detail that any fan can understand.
The writing really lays out only the basics of Buddhism, so if you’re already enlightened, this may not be the book you’re looking for. But it’s still a highly enjoyable read.
4. The Psychology of Superheroes: An Unauthorized Exploration
Why is the Incredible Hulk so triggered by rage? Where does Peter Parker’s bravery come from as soon as his spider-suit goes on?
This book provides a series of essays by professionals in the mental health field, giving an intro-level overview of various psychological concepts and personality disorders using superheroes as the subject. The writing itself is presented in a clever, witty, and enjoyable tone, and understanding the origin of your favorite hero (or villain) can add a whole new dimension and appreciation for the characters, their universe, and their storylines.
It’s a thought-provoking collection for any fan of comic books or movies, or anyone who’s thinking that psychology might be their superpower to start a career in.
5. The Psychology of Zelda: Linking Our World to the Legend of Zelda Series
For over three decades, generations of gamers have been immersed in The Legend of Zelda and its various quests, each evoking a much deeper mission than just slaying a bad guy and rescuing a pixelated princess. This book addresses topics such as why Link’s journey is different than the typical “Hero’s Journey,” along with an excellent chapter on how the challenges in Majora’s Mask mirror the Five Stages of Grief, and the importance of Zelda’s feminist representation throughout the series.