If you are like me — or seemingly half of America — you spent most of Valentine’s Day weekend binge-watching the second season of House of Cards. Even President Obama is a fan of the show, publicly tweeting his anticipation of Season 2. This critically acclaimed series revolves around Frank and Claire Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright), two Machiavellian power players who scheme, lie, and betray their way to the top. If the show’s popularity and acclaim have shown anything, it is that Americans are fascinated by people who grab power by any means necessary. Although Frank and Claire commit all sorts of crimes, including murder, to get ahead, people want to root for them. Take, for example, the debate about whether or not Claire Underwood — a woman who cuts off another woman’s health insurance and tells her, “I’m willing to let your child wither and die inside you if that’s what’s required” — is or is not a “feminist warrior.” Whether we are attracted or repulsed by characters like the Underwoods, we all want to see what they will do.
With some much appreciated help from fellow writers, I’ve compiled a variety of fiction and nonfiction books to read while you wait for Season 3 to be filmed. These books feature ruthless rulers, Machiavellian plotters, devious political machinations, intrepid journalists, and other elements that fans of House of Cards will love.
1. House of Cards by Michael Dobbs
If you didn’t know, the Netflix series is based on a BBC miniseries of the same name that in turn was based on this novel. Dobbs, who has worked for the British Conservative party in many capacities over the last 30 years, wrote House of Cards in 1989. It was followed by two sequels, To Play the King and The Final Cut, both of which were also made into award-winning BBC miniseries. Why not start with the novel that started it all?
2. The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli
Machiavelli’s infamous political treatise has inspired everyone from Thomas Cromwell to the American Mafia. It could easily be a guidebook for the Underwoods. The book essentially argues that a ruler needs to know how to lie, break the law, and kill in order to get and maintain power. Interestingly, the book’s intent is up for debate. In his other writings, Machiavelli favored republics, and many think The Prince is a satire or at least intended to expose to the commoners what the political rulers really think. Either way, the book’s advice has been widely followed by political leaders and criminal organizations. The most famous claim in the book is that “it is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.” However, for the purposes of a House of Cards reading list, I think the most relevant concept is that to be an effective ruler you must represent both “the fox” and “the lion”: “A prince being thus obliged to know well how to act as a beast must imitate the fox and the lion, for the lion cannot protect himself from snares, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognize snares, and a lion to frighten wolves. Those that wish to be only lions do not understand this.” The Underwoods are quite effective at using both the trickery of the fox and the power of the lion when getting ahead. Read The Prince for free at Project Gutenerg (the most relevant chapters are 15 through 19).
3. The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
If you are fascinated by characters that claw their way to power and wealth through their wit, ambition, and ruthlessness, you will love Highsmith’s most famous creation. Ripley would be more than a worthy adversary for Frank and Claire Underwood (fan-fiction idea?) and his stylish brand of scamming would fit in well in the world of House of Cards. There are five novels in Highsmith’s Ripley series, but start with the first. In adaptations, Tom Ripley has been played by no less than John Malkovich, Dennis Hopper, and Matt Damon.
4. The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice by William Shakespeare
No writer has more famous Machiavellian schemers than Williams Shakespeare. With characters like Lady Macbeth, Richard III, Edmund, etc., a dozen Shakespeare plays could make this list. However, I’m going to go with Othello and give Iago the crown of most brilliant and villainous schemer in any of Shakespeare’s plays. Like Frank Underwood, he is fine with ruining even the very person who gave him his position in the first place and cares little about the careers and lives ruined by his plots.
5. I, Claudius by Robert Graves
I, Claudius is a fantastic novel, ranking 14th on Modern Library’s list of the greatest 20th century English-language novels. Fashioned as an autobiography, it describes the reign of Roman Emperor Claudius — who followed Caligula — and the various power struggles going on behind and in front of the throne. Claudius himself is thought of as an idiot and tends to hide his intelligence, making him more sympathetic than either Underwood. But Graves’ version of Livia, Claudius’ grandmother, is one of the great Machiavellian schemers and behind-the-throne power players in literary history.
6. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
This 2009 historical novel has racked up more praise and accolades than Frank has whipped votes. Mantel chronicles the rise of Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to King Henry VIII, and the political struggles in Henry’s royal court. If you want to see the political machinations of House of Cards transposed onto 16th century England, here you go. Mantel is planning a trilogy, and the second novel, Bring Up the Bodies, was released in 2012.
7. After the Banquet by Yukio Mishima
A large part of the appeal of works like House of Cards is the idea that we are peering behind the facades that politicians erect and seeing how they truly think and act. If that interests you, run out and get Mishima’s 1960 novel, After the Banquet. The novel was so close to life that Mishima was successfully sued by Japanese politician Hachiro Arita for invasion of privacy.
8. The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion
If your favorite House of Cards characters are Zoe Barnes and her journalist peers who get sucked into a world of conspiracy and political retribution, this is the book for you. Somewhat overlooked among Joan Didion’s work, The Last Thing He Wanted is an engrossing and brilliantly written novel about a Washington Post reporter who gets entangled with Central American arms dealers, spies, and the American military.
9. A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin
If you are a fan of great TV shows, then you already know Game of Thrones. The HBO show features tons of Machiavellian schemers and realpolitik in a rich, fantasy world. The series is somewhat inspired by the historical War of the Roses, where the Yorks and Lancasters traded the English throne back and forth over several decades. In House of Cards, Frank Underwood likes to gather wiling and unwilling pawns — such as Zoe Barnes and Peter Russo — before putting his plans in motion. The great schemers of Westeros, like Tyrion and Littlefinger, use the same tactic.
10. Watergate by Thomas Mallon
No American president has a more Machiavellian reputation than Nixon, whose presidency was ended by the Watergate scandal. Mallon’s 2013 novel turns that infamous scandal into page turning fiction. The New York Times said, “In this stealth bull’s-eye of a political novel, Thomas Mallon invests the Watergate affair with all the glitter, glamour, suave grace and subtlety that it doesn’t often get.”
11. All the President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward
I listed a fictional account of Watergate directly above, but anyone interested in Nixon’s Underwood-like tactics should read the firsthand nonfiction account of the journalists who uncovered the entire scandal.
12. The Selling of the President 1968 by Joe McGinniss
Sticking to Nixon nonfiction, McGinniss’ book chronicles how Nixon used advertising techniques to sell himself in the 1968 election. The fact that politicians are rolled out like focus-grouped products is simply a fact of life in 2014, but was fairly shocking when exposed by McGinniss in 1969. In Season 2, we see the Underwoods hire Seth Grayson (Derek Cecil) to spin the media and control their public appearance.
13. The Dwarf by Pär Lagerkvist
When I asked my Facebook and Twitter friends for recommendations of novels with Machiavellian characters, a whole bunch immediately told me to include The Dwarf. The novel is told as diary entries from a man who works for an Italian prince who is clearly modeled on the titular prince of Machiavelli’s text.
14. Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar
In yet another historical novel in the form of a memoir, Yourcenar’s Hadrian is quite a different ruler than the Frank Underwood we have seen so far. But perhaps being in power will change him. Either way, this is a great novel that meditates on what it means to rule and to live.
15. The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel García Márquez
Speaking of meditations on what it means to rule, Márquez’s self-described “poem on the solitude of power” is a fascinating look at a seemingly immortal Latin American dictator. Although the book might be classified as magical realism, much of the text is inspired by the lives of modern tyrants.
16. Reasons of State by Alejo Carpentier
Márquez’s novel was written as part of an agreement with two other writers — Augusto Roa Bastos and Alejo Carpentier — to each write novels about the dictatorships common in Latin America at that time. Carpentier’s Reasons of State also employs an unnamed dictator, but unlike Márquez’s magical realism, Carpentier draws more directly from real life. He believed that the state of Latin American politics and life at the time was so bizarre that it could seem marvelous by itself. Reasons of State was republished in America in 2013 by Melville House, which says it is “hailed as the most significant novel ever to come out of Cuba.”
17. Forty-Four Stories About Our Forty-Four Presidents curated by Melville House
Speaking of Melville House, during the 2012 election it published an online anthology of 44 stories by 44 writers on the 44 U.S. presidents. The anthology, which is free online, includes a lot of great up-and-coming writers like Lindsay Hunter, Roxane Gay, Matt Bell, Ben Loory, and many others. Full disclosure, it also has a piece by me, but I hope you won’t mind me placing it on this list, as it’s a fun and interesting collection of political-inspired fiction.
18. Stumbling and Raging edited by Stephen Elliott
Another anthology of political short fiction, this collection (and its precursor, which was published in the aftermath of 9/11) is bursting with tales that run the gamut from thrilling to absurd. Contributors include Dave Eggers, Aimee Bender, Neal Pollack, and Audrey Niffenegger.
19. Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff
Schiff’s nonfiction book is a fascinating look at one of the most famous female rulers in history. Cleopatra wasn’t above Machiavellian maneuvers including a little murder here and there — she poisoned her own brother, among other assassinations — to get and keep power.
20. Demons by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Sometimes titled The Possessed, Demons is perhaps Dostoyevsky’s most political novel. It portrays the struggles and power plays of various ideological factions in late 19th century imperial Russia.
21. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
A somewhat more inspiring look at how politics works than most of the other books on this list. President Barack Obama famously called it one of his favorite books and tried to model his own cabinet after Lincoln’s.
22. The Years of Lyndon Johnson series by Robert Caro
Caro has completed four of the planned five volumes of his massive, detailed, and essential biography of President Lyndon Johnson. Of the four, Master of the Senate is probably the most appropriate for a House of Cards reading list. You might recognize much of Frank Underwood’s moves to pass bills in Congress in the description of how Johnson worked Congress to pass, among other things, the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Another Caro work that deserves mention here is The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.
23. All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
One of the greatest American novels of all time, this 1947 Pulitzer winner tells about the rise of a Southern governor in the 1930s as narrated by a political journalist. Here is a great quote from the novel that might sum up much of House of Cards: “And what we students of history always learn is that the human being is a very complicated contraption and that they are not good or bad but are good and bad and the good comes out of the bad and the bad out of the good, and the devil take the hindmost.”
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