Literary Lionesses

The WB’s Gilmore Girls is the most bookish show on television.

Beautiful bookworms

Norman Mailer’s guest appearance on tonight’s episode of Gilmore Girls will be the first cameo by a real-live author on the WB’s quirky mother-daughter drama, now in its fifth season. But literature has played a supporting role on the show since its inception. With its rapid-fire, hyper-caffeinated dialogue and who’s-got-a-crush-on-whom plotlines, Gilmore Girls could easily pass as another wholesome WB teen show à la Dawson’s Creek. But beneath its giggly female energy and family-friendly values lurks the most bookish series on network television.

It’s not just that Rory Gilmore (Alexis Bledel), the teenage heroine who, until she left for Yale, lived with her sexy single mom, Lorelai (Lauren Graham), in tiny Stars Hollow, Conn., is an inveterate bookworm, dropping historical and cultural references every other line; the writers of Gilmore Girls, led by creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, actually understand something about the way books function in adolescent life. Literary references are to the women of this show what pop-music references are to the teenage boys of The O.C.: a badge of identity, a cultural currency that symbolizes the young characters’ emerging sense of selfhood. Borrowed, traded, or earnestly pressed upon others, books are a way of concretizing the teenager’s secret conviction that if only someone could truly understand them, everything would be all right.

For the female characters in Gilmore Girls, books are also the ultimate accessory, a prop in the game of seduction. In the first episode, 16-year-old Rory meets her future boyfriend, Dean (Jared Padalecki), when he spots her reading Madame Bovary and later Moby Dick under a tree: “I thought, ‘I have never seen someone read so intensely before in my life. I have to meet that girl.’ ” In a later episode, a troubled teenager named Jess (Milo Ventimiglia) borrows Rory’s copy of Allen Ginsberg’s *Howl and returns it with notes scribbled in the margins. The two soon embark on an angst-ridden teenage romance in which the earnest exchange of book titles figures largely; in one second-season episode, Jess agrees to read Ayn Rand (perhaps the ultimate adolescent author) if Rory will give Hemingway another chance.

Subsequent episodes  revolve around a Shakespeare festival at Rory’s school or a meeting of the Edgar Allan Poe Society at the Independence Inn, the folksy local hotel formerly managed * by Rory’s mom, Lorelai. As guests check in, Lorelai’s jokes about casks of Amontillado and black cats embedded in the walls of their hotel rooms keep falling flat. “This is just my hobby,” one stuffy guest sneers, mocking Lorelai’s literary enthusiasm. The subtext is clear: Those who truly care about books are members of a secret society. It’s not surprising that Gilmore Girls has generated a healthy fan-fiction following, with devoted viewers contributing self-penned, often erotic stories that imagine the show’s characters interacting between episodes. There’s even an online book club  on the show’s WB Web page (“Want to be more like Rory? Read a book!”). And of course, there are the inevitable novelizations of the series—the sort of books that Rory Gilmore herself, a Sylvia Plath and Dorothy Parker fan, would scorn.

So what is Norman Mailer doing on tonight’s episode? The same thing as pretty much everybody else on Gilmore Girls: sitting around talking about books. In three separate scenes scattered throughout the the hour-long episode, Mailer, playing himself, and his son Stephen * (an actor), playing a journalist, have taken to hanging out in the dining room of the Dragonfly Inn (what exactly they’re doing in Stars Hollow, Conn., in the first place is unclear). To the chagrin of the chef, Sookie (Melissa McCarthy), the two sit for whole afternoons consuming nothing but iced tea and conducting a desultory interview (clearly ad-libbed) about the current state of American letters, while Lorelai swoons in the kitchen: “I’ve got to call Rory. She read The Naked and the Dead while she was still in footie pajamas.” This line identifying Mailer’s most famous work is both a wink to those in the know and a lesson for young WB viewers asking, who’s that old guy in the dining room? The purpose Mailer serves on the show echoes the purpose he serves in the Dragonfly dining room; as Lorelai tells the increasingly enraged chef, “This is fun! We’re the cool place where Norman Mailer likes to hang! It’ll give us street cred, you’ll see.”

Curmudgeons may wonder if the young fans of this allusion-dense series are too busy compiling lists of the titles of the books Rory reads to turn off the television and crack a book themselves. But compared to, say, the book coverage on Oprah, with its self-congratulatory assurances that readers are courageous, exceptional individuals whose reading efforts deserve to be lauded with cheers and matching T-shirts, Gilmore Girls at least treats reading as a seduction, a flirtation—not only with the latest WB dreamboat, but with literature itself.

Correction, Oct. 27, 2004: Originally this article said Norman Mailer’s son Stephen Mailer is the editor of High Times magazine. In fact, the magazine is edited by Mailer’s son John. Stephen Mailer is an actor. ( Return to the corrected sentence.) Also, Allen Ginsberg’s name was misspelled as Allan Ginsburg. ( Return to the corrected sentence.) The Edgar Allan Poe Society met at the Independence Inn, not the Dragonfly as was originally stated. (Return to the corrected sentence.)