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The Bookshelves of Boardwalk Empire


Prohibition. Politics. Corruption. Alcohol was not illegal to drink. It was just illegal to manufacture, sell, or transport. Various organized criminal enterprises saw fit to illegally manufacture, sell, and transport alcohol to those who wanted it. 1920. Money. Politics. Corruption. This is Boardwalk Empire.

Like other period television shows, Boardwalk Empire has threads of historical fact running through its core. Steve Buscemi's character "Nucky" Thompson is based on Enoch "Nucky" Johnson. There's Al Capone and Warren G. Harding. There's Arnold Rothstein and the Black Sox scandal. There's the Women's Suffrage Movement. The writers have a wealth of historical material to work with. Prohibition and the early 1920s offer countless events and a host of characters, both upstanding and questionable, stretching along the east coast from Atlantic City to New York City and west to Chicago. The story opportunities are endless.

Boardwalk Empire makes it easy to lose yourself in the roaring twenties. All of that wonderful music, the set design, the costumes, the dialogue. But it's more than the apparent and obvious details such as these. Sometimes it's the little things that make all the difference, something minimal and seemingly insignificant that adds volumes to a show's authenticity. Something like a book.

The writers of Boardwalk Empire certainly have a lot of classic literature to work with to add layers to a character's personality. Whether it's for character development or to help set the mood for a specific scene, whether it's a title that appears in multiple episodes or it's only a brief reference to a poem or genre, you can always count on a good book.

Below is a list of books that have appeared in Boardwalk Empire. What other books do you imagine Nucky reading? How about Margaret Schroeder? Jimmy Darmody? Agent Nelson Van Alden? Al Capone? At the bottom is a list of various other books that were published in the five years leading up to prohibition. Most all of the books listed below are available for free as eBooks via Google Books and Project Gutenberg so if you can't find the titles at your local library try searching online. All of these and more would have very likely been on the bookshelves of Boardwalk Empire.

Season 4

Episode 10 - "White Horse Pike"

  "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" / Edgar Allen Poe (click here for more information)




Episode 8 - "The Old Ship of Zion"

 Ragged Dick, Or, Street Life in New York with the Boot-blacks / Horatio Alger (click here for more information)



Episode 7 - "William Wilson"

   Thus Spoke Zarathustra / Friedrich Nietzsche (click here for more information)




  "William Wilson" / Edgar Allen Poe (click here for more information)




Episode 5 - "Erlkonig"

 Old Surehand / Karl May (click here for more information)




Episode 4 - "All In"

 Tess of the D’Urbervilles / Thomas Hardy (click here for more     information)




 The Dictionary of American History  (click here for more information)




Episode 3 - "Acres of Diamonds"

Good Times (click here for more information)




Episode 2 - "Resignation"

 The Chessmen of Mars / Edgar Rice Burroughs (click here and here for more information)




 The Bible (click here for more details)




 The Bible (click here for more details)



Season 3

Episode 11 – “Two Imposters”

Ragged Dick, Or, Street Life in New York with the Boot-blacks / Horatio Alger




Episode 10 – “A Man, A Plan…”

The Redemption of David Corson / Charles Frederic Goss




Episode 6 – “Ging Gang Goolie”

The Birth Control Review / Margaret Sanger




"Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis" / Francois Villon (as translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti) (click here for more details)




Episode 5 – “You’d Be Surprised"

Catching up on the latest trends in prefabricated homes!




Episode 4 - "Blue Bell Boy"

Gasoline Alley / Frank King and Happy Holigan / Frederick Burr Opper




Episode 3 – “Bone for Tuna”

"Dream-Love" / Christina Georgina Rossetti




Episode 2 – “Spaghetti & Coffee”

The poems of Claude McKay (click here for more details)




The work of William Shakespeare (click here for more details)



Season 2

Episode 12 - "To the Lost"

Julius Caesar / William Shakespeare

(click here for details)



Episode 11 - "Under God's Power She Flourishes"

The Revenger's Tragedy / Cyril Tourneur

(click here for details)



The White Devil / John Webster




Episode 10 - "Georgia Peaches"

The Tempest / William Shakespeare

(click here for details)



Episode 9- "Battle of the Century"

Pretty Robins: Bright Stories for Little Folks




Episode 8 - "Two Boats and a Lifeguard"

The author Louise Bryant




Episode 7 - "Peg of Old"

The Girl, a Horse, and a DogFrancis Lynde




Episode 6 - "The Age of Reason"

The Bible




Sayings, Proverbs, Maxims, and Mottoes / C.F. Schutz

(click here for details)



Young People's Illustrated Bible History




The Bible




Episode 4 - "What Does the Bee Do?"

Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book / Christina Rossetti

(for text to the poem see page 113 of the free eBook)



Episode 3 - "A Dangerous Maid"

The Lost Girl / D.H. Lawrence




Frankenstein / Mary Shelley (click here for details)




Episode 2 - "Ourselves Alone"

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer / Mark Twain

(click here for details)

(click here and here for more images from this scene)


 David Copperfield / Charles Dickens




Season 1

Episode 12 - "A Return to Normalcy"

The Holy Bible




The Holy Bible




Episode 11 - "Paris Green"

"Halloween" / Robert Burns




The Holy Bible




Episode 10 - "The Emerald City"

Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz / L. Frank Baum

(click here and here for more images from this scene)



Episode 9 - "Belle Femme"

The Road to Oz / L. Frank Baum

(click here for another image from this scene)



Episode 7 - "Home"

The Tin Solider / Temple Baily




Tom Swift and His Undersea Search / Victor Appleton




Episode 6 - "Family Limitation"

Free Air / Sinclair Lewis

(click here for another image from this scene)



Episode 5 - "Nights in Ballygran"

Public Speaking and Influencing Men in Business / Dale Carnegie




Episode 4 - "Anastasia"

Free Air / Sinclair Lewis




Episode 3 - "Broadway Limited"

Free Air / Sinclair Lewis




Episode 2 - "The Ivory Tower"

The Ivory Tower / Henry James




What else would be on the bookshelves of Boardwalk Empire?








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That would be Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City, by Nelson Johnson. Given that Johnson's carefully-researched history was published in 2002 it certainly would not have been on Nucky's reading list, but it's a bit surprising that a great library like the NYPL is either unaware of the book or didn't find it worthy of mention here. Boardwalk Empire is an exceptional, award-winning book, Mr. Parrott--I hope you'll read it.

Thank you Mr. Bryans

In regards to Johnson's book, it is not a matter of being unaware of it and it is certainly not a matter of its worthiness. This particular list concentrates on books that appear in the show along with books that might have appeared on the bookshelves of Boardwalk Empire. A crowd-sourced supplemental list is an excellent idea and the comments section would be a perfect place for that. Do you have a favorite historical fiction or non-fiction book about prohibition, politics, and the roaring twenties? Keep the suggestions coming!

Impressive Mr. Parrott...very

Impressive Mr. Parrott...very impressive.

Nelson Johnson's Boardwalk Empire

I mentioned Nelson Johnson's book in a blog post back in 2010, but given that it was a post about Halloween reads, it was easy to miss. Here's the link:

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