It seems like every few months, there’s a new aspect of Friends to discuss, like when we learned why all the walls were purple in Monica’s apartment. Or that we’ve been singing the wrong lyrics to the theme song this whole time. But one thing that hasn’t been explored yet? All the books read in the hit ’90s show—and what they mean for the characters.
The books that the crew—yes, including Joey—choose have a lot of significance, once you start digging. Some serve as a subtle insight into the character’s mindset at the time (see: the irony of Ross reading The Idiot). Others move the plot forward, like a birthday gift Chandler buys for Joey’s girlfriend because he has feelings for her. A few notable ones even foreshadow events to come. They all, however, show us something deeper about Phoebe, Ross, Rachel, Chandler, Joey, and Monica.
But before we begin, a disclaimer: We didn’t include newspapers, magazines, or any books that are hanging out in the background at Central Perk. We’re talking strictly about books that the characters really read in an episode. So for example, even though we saw the section where Ross’s dissertation lives in the library, no one ever actually reads it. Plenty of people have made out in front of it, though.
Presenting: The One With All the Books.
Season 1, Episode 9: “The One Where Underdog Gets Away”
Yertle the Turtle by Dr. Seuss
Susan, the partner of Ross’s ex-wife Carol, reads this classic children’s tale to their unborn baby. The story’s all about the unpredictable force that comes with being in power. Yertle’s the king of the pond who perches on top of a stack of his turtle subjects, so that he can better see his kingdom. But one of the turtles, Mack, burps and Yertle is knocked off his throne, leaving Mack as the new king. At the time of its publication, this was undoubtedly a comment on classism. But in this context, the story of the new hot turtle in town feels like a subtle address of the fact that the show totally recast Carol in this episode. (The original actress, Anita Barone, was replaced by Jane Sibbett.)
Season 1, Episode 11: “The One With Mrs. Bing”
Euphoria Unbound by Nora Bing
Unfortunately, this book doesn’t exist IRL. But Nora’s erotica novel does inspire Rachel to write her own sexy book, the first chapter of which appears at the end of the episode. And since this takes place a few episodes after Rachel begins her love affair with Paolo, we can understand the true meaning of this book to be just another cold reminder to Ross that Rachel is shacking up with another dude.
Season 1, Episode 12: “The One With the Dozen Lasagnas”
The Birth Book: Everything You Need to Know to Have a Safe and Satisfying Birth by William Sears and Martha Sears
Ross is preparing to be a father—and like anyone who can’t get enough of academia, he’s got a bag full of books to get him ready. Though there are several titles, the one we can see clearly is The Birth Book. It’s fitting that he’s most involved in a book co-written by two people, because it reminds us that Susan and Carol will be raising the baby as co-parents, and Ross is the third wheel.
Season 1, Episode 24: “The One Where Rachel Finds Out”
Oh, The Places You’ll Go! By Dr. Seuss
Rachel receives this book from Joey as a birthday present. Joey explains that the book—typically reserved for graduations—got him through some hard times. But what about the places Rachel might go? Um, how about TO THE AIRPORT TO TELL ROSS SHE LOVES HIM? Because that is what she does minutes later, when Chandler accidentally reveals Ross’s feelings.
Season 2, Episode 3: “The One Where Heckles Dies”
My Big Book of Grievances by Mr. Heckles
Before Mean Girls gave us The Burn Book, we had Mr. Heckles keeping scathing tabs on the gang. The purpose of this book—and just about everything else we find in Heckles’ apartment—is to give Chandler a Scrooge treatment, to show him what’s to come if he continues on this path. But this book is really about grievances, which sets us up for the first big fight between the friends two episodes later, when Rachel, Phoebe, and Joey complain they don’t make enough money to do all the things Chandler, Monica, and Ross suggest.
Season 2, Episode 19: “The One Where Eddie Won’t Go”
Be Your Own Windkeeper
Phoebe and Monica introduce Rachel to this new self-help book, which, unfortunately, isn’t real outside of the Friends universe. What is real, though, are the book’s sentiments of being a wind goddess and not letting men drink from the pool of your inner power. Perhaps it’s the empowerment of this fake book that bolsters Rachel’s sense of self and gets her to sing “Copacabana” at Barry and Mindy’s wedding just a few episodes later.
Season 3, Episode 1: “The One With the Princess Leia Fantasy”
Trout: An Illustrated History by James Prosek
For the most part, we haven’t included the art books hanging around the Central Perk that nobody reads. But in this case, we can see clearly that Chandler’s spending time with one about fish. Perhaps this is because Janice has made one of her (many) reentries into his life and Chandler is, um, on the hook? On Janice’s hook. OK, work with us here.
Season 3, Episode 3: “The One With the Jam”
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Sure, this episode is mostly about Monica’s using a jam-making project to distract her from being sad about Richard, but it’s also the episode where Ross teaches Chandler how to do the hug-and-roll to get more space sleeping next to Janice. At first, it can seem like Chandler’s reading a book about being alone for a hundred years sets up the idea that he’s just trying to get some space from Janice. But the book isn’t called Six to Eight Hours of Solitude—it’s a century. As in, Chandler is still so undateable at this point in time he will almost certainly be alone for the next hundred years.
Season 3, Episode 12: “The One With All the Jealousy”
The Flowers Of Evil by Charles Baudelaire
Monica’s wrapping up a shift as the fake boob-wearing chef in the ‘50s diner as the sexy busboy Julio reads this book of fancy erotic poetry. This lays the groundwork for Julio to write his poem “The Empty Vase” about Monica, but it also allows lyricism to play a central theme in the episode, like when Monica hires the barbershop quartet to publicly dump Julio with song.
Season 3, Episode 13: “The One Where Monica and Richard Are Just Friends”
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
The Shining by Stephen King
Race: How Blacks and Whites Think About the American Obsession by Studs Terkel
This might seem like some cute little book swap between Joey and Rachel, but here’s the truth: Just three episodes prior, Joey tells Rachel she needs to quit her job at the Central Perk to get “the fear.” In other words, to put herself in a position where she has nothing to fall back on and she’s forced to pursue her career in fashion. What better way to get “the fear” than by reading one of the scariest books of all time? As for Joey reading Little Women, he ultimately finds it too sad and scary and wants to put it in the freezer. And since any insight into the actual thoughts and feelings of women would counteract the code by which Joey lives, of course he wants to hide it away.
Meanwhile, on the more serious side, Ross is reading the iconic Studs Terkel book about race while sitting at the Central Perk—before he and Chandler notice Phoebe’s current boyfriend is wearing gym shorts that show his junk.
Season 3, Episode 14: “The One With Phoebe’s Ex-Partner”
The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Rachel and Ross are in bed, and Ross is reading The Idiot while arguing that it’s inappropriate for Rachel to go to a fashion lecture with her colleague Mark. So Ross commits to going with Rachel to eliminate Mark from the outing. The takeaway here: Ross is an actual idiot.
Season 3, Episode 22: “The One With the Screamer”
How Stella Got Her Groove Back by Terry McMillan
The Bear Went Over the Mountain by William Kotzwinkle
When Rachel learns Ross is bringing a date to see Joey’s new play, she scrambles to find one too. No wonder she’s reading a classic book about rekindling a love life when the episode opens.
Meanwhile, Chandler’s reading The Bear Went Over The Mountain. This one’s got all the appeal of a kid’s book trapped in the body of an adult novel. If that isn’t Chandler, I don’t know what is.
Season 3, Episode 25: “The One at the Beach”
The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion
Everyone’s out in Montauk to join Phoebe as she meets the woman who turns out to be her birth mother. And by everyone, we mean Ross has brought his new girlfriend, Bonnie, along. Rachel doesn’t love this—and while she’s reading this Didion novel, Bonnie complains that her long hair is too tough for the beach. So much sand! Rachel incepts Bonnie into shaving her head…and you might say that’s the last thing Ross wanted.
Season 4, Episode 1: “The One With the Jellyfish”
“Does It?” by Rachel Karen Green
The letter Rachel wrote Ross, which we may as well title “Does It?” in honor of the ultimate question at hand, is 18 pages front and back—it might as well count as a short book. It was a list of Rachel’s shortcomings that first undid this couple, so it’s natural that a written document brings them back together.
Season 4, Episode 3: “The One With the Cuffs”
“V” Volume, the encyclopedia
Joey purchases the single volume of “V” from the encyclopedia salesman. Why is this significant? Well, despite all the entries under “V,” Joey still has no concept of the timeless The Velveteen Rabbit, which comes into play three episodes later.
Season 4, Episode 5: “The One With Joey’s New Girlfriend”
Anthem by Ayn Rand
This is at a time when Ross and Rachel have moved beyond the discomfort of being exes in the same room and are in a full-on rivalry to show off their new dates in front of each other. Rachel’s reading Anthem, a dystopian book about socialism, at the Central Perk when Ross tosses a napkin with a woman’s phone number in her face. Rachel’s reading this book to suggest she’s far too mature to play into Ross’s games, but when she starts dating an NYU student, we see she really was paying attention to Ross’s antics—and proving that no one ever really reads that book.
Season 4, Episode 6: “The One With The Dirty Girl”
The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams
Chandler goes through a lot of trouble to get this book as a gift for Kathy, Joey’s girlfriend that he has feelings for, but ultimately tells her it’s from Joey. The story’s about a rabbit toy who becomes real thanks to the love of a child. So maybe we could say it’s like Kathy is the rabbit, who becomes a real romantic interest for Chandler, thanks to the love of a child (Joey).
Season 4, Episode 13: “The One With Rachel’s Crush”
What to Expect When You’re Expecting by Heidi Murkoff
In the previous episode, Phoebe agreed to be a surrogate for Frank and Alice. In “The One With Rachel’s Crush,” she picks up *What to Expect When You’re Expecting” to, well, learn what to expect. And while this book allegedly covers everything Phoebe needs to know about her pregnancy, it didn’t include one thing that truly shocked her: that she’d want to eat meat. (Note: Joey also reads this book in season eight to prep for Rachel’s baby.)
Season 4, Episode 15: “The One With All the Rugby”
Like a Hole in the Head by Jen Banbury
Monica and Rachel have lost their apartment to Chandler and Joey after a wild game of trivia, and Monica cannot rest until she knows the function of the switch near the door in her new apartment. She’s reading this book and sipping a glass of wine when Rachel comes home to find that the woman reading about a hole in the head has also left seven to 10 actual holes in the wall and floor, having tried to locate the wiring for the switch.
Season 4, Episode 18: “The One With Rachel’s New Dress”
A Concise Dictionary of First Names by Patrick Hanks
Phoebe is naming one of the triplets and trying to decide what to choose. Of course, the idea of choosing a name isn’t just for the baby; several episodes later, Phoebe reveals for the first time her alter ego: Regina Phalange.
Season 4, Episode 21: “The One With the Invitation”
Access London by Richard Saul Wurman
Chandler’s reading this book to prep for the big trip to London for Ross and Emily’s wedding. But why is Chandler the only one reading about the British city? Maybe the book is foreshadowing that he’ll access a lot more than he bargained for in London…like Monica.
Season 5, Episode 7: “The One Where Ross Moves In”
Practical Intuition in Love by Laura Day
Monica’s reading this book at the Central Perk while Rachel sees Danny (the yeti) carrying a box of liquor. He says he’s having a party, and Rachel launches into an episode-long sports analogy about the politics of dating that never really reaches its conclusion. The ball’s in whose court? We don’t know. But Rachel’s wild musings about her nonrelationship with Danny are juxtaposed with a practical guide to dating.
Season 5, Episode 9: “The One With Ross’s Sandwich”
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronté
Rachel and Phoebe are taking a literature class together, but Rachel isn’t really reading the books. If Wuthering Heights is about how destructive jealousy and revenge can be, and Jane Eyre is about the evolution of a character, then it’s safe to say that both literary themes are applied to the main plot of this episode, which is that Ross loses his shit over someone eating his sandwich and is forced to take leave from work.
Season 5, Episode 17: “The One With Rachel’s Inadvertent Kiss”
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Monica’s reading this book at her apartment, but the book is really a foreshadowing of what’s going to happen with Phoebe. In this episode, Phoebe meets Gary, the cop whose badge she found at the coffee shop, and they start dating. Just four episodes later, Phoebe dumps him after he literally shoots a bird.
Season 5, Episode 22: “The One With Joey’s Big Break”
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
Ross is reading this classic tale of self-discovery in the episode before he goes to Vegas and drunkenly marries Rachel. The book’s central message is about following your dreams—which is perhaps what convinces him to lie to Rachel and not get their marriage annulled so he can realize his dream of not getting divorced for once.
Season 6, Episode 2: “The One Where Ross Hugs Rachel”
Like a Hole in the Head by Jen Banbury
Does this book seem familiar? It’s the book Rachel’s reading when Monica tells her Chandler’s moving in and Rachel must move out. It’s also the same book Monica reads back in season four, when she and Rachel lose their apartment. How fitting that Rachel’s reading this book when she’s about to lose her apartment again.
Season 6, Episode 13: “The One With Rachel’s Sister”
The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama
Rebuilding the Indian by Fred Haefele
Rachel’s sister Jill, played by Reese Witherspoon, is in town, and Phoebe tells Rachel she senses a spark between Jill and Ross. Rachel puts on a faux maturity about it and mistakenly convinces Jill to go out with Ross. All while reading The Art of Happiness, which we can only assume she was staring at, fuming, and not actually reading.
Meanwhile, Monica is sick but trying to convince Chandler she’s not. In fact, she could really go for some sex. So though Chander is the one reading Rebuilding the Indian, a story of a man rebuilding a motorcycle and rebuilding his life, it seems Monica’s the one on a quest. With a little bit of VapoRub, she does succeed in getting Chandler into bed.
Season 6, Episode 14: “The One Where Chandler Can’t Cry”
Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, and Amy Newmark
In the previous episode, Chandler is trying to take care of Monica while she’s sick. In this episode, it’s Chandler who needs the proverbial chicken soup. Of course, it’s not the gut-wrenching tales of humanity that break Chandler in the end—it’s that Ross and Rachel just can’t work things out.
Season 7, Episode 15: “The One With Joey’s New Brain”
Beethoven’s Hair: An Extraordinary Historical Odyssey and a Scientific Mystery Solved by Russell Martin
Why is Ross reading a book about Beethoven? Probably because it’s the episode where he’s preparing to play the bagpipes at Chandler and Monica’s wedding. He’s getting in touch with his musical side! And as for the “mystery solved”? Well, thanks to Ross’s inability to be subtle, ever, we know he’s preparing the song “Celebration.”
Season 8, Episode 7: “The One With the Stain”
The Girlfriends Guide to Pregnancy by Vicki Iovine
Though Ross is reading a book called Dutch for Beginners in this episode, there’s no exact version of this book in real life. However, you can absolutely find Rachel’s book, The Girlfriend’s Guide to Pregnancy. In this episode Rachel’s reading it when Joey asks her to keep living with him when the baby comes. If you think about it, Joey has the perfect apartment to raise a baby. We’re talking about a place where if you spill spaghetti on the floor, you just leave it. That’s the entirety of Joey’s guide to pregnancy.
Season 8, Episode 10: “The One With Monica’s Boots”
Pregnancy for Dummies by Joanne Stone, Keith Eddleman, and Mary Duenwald
Joey’s sister Dina is pregnant and reading this book, but Dina’s not the dummy. That title belongs, as always, to Joey as Rachel has to educate him on how hypocritical it is to think Dina’s not ready to have a baby on her own.
Season 8, Episode 11: “The One With the Creepy Holiday Card”
Ross can’t get enough of this author, and how “Ross” is it to be reading a book about death? He’s looking at it when Mona asks him to send out a holiday card together, and he immediately realizes he’s made a mistake in their relationship. Of course, when we consider the question “Will the circle be unbroken?” we can only assume that for Ross it means will his never-ending circle of bad relationships ever end?
Season 9, Episode 2: “The One Where Emma Cries”
365 Things Every New Mom Should Know by Linda Danis
The New Mom’s Manual: Over 800 Tips and Advice From Hundreds of Moms for Baby’s First Year by Mary Jeanne Menna
365 Things combines the elements of motherhood with the appeal of prayer. The New Mom’s Manual provides more than 800 tips from almost as many moms. The only thing that will get Emma to stop crying, though, is Monica’s embrace. This is a nice change of pace from the earlier seasons, when Ben would cry only when he was near Monica. So while these books appear to be intended for Rachel, they’re actually setting up the idea of Monica as a mother, which happens later in the series.
Season 9, Episode 15: “The One With the Mugging”
Science Boy by Ross Geller
Another book that exists only in the Friends universe, Science Boy plays an important role. A teenaged Phoebe mugged a teenaged Ross, way before they knew each other. When Ross bemoans the mugging as the loss of his original artwork for Science Boy, Phoebe recalls keeping it and returns it to Ross. This is major, because it shows that Ross at an early age chose science as his career.
Season 10, Episode 4: “The One With the Cake”
Love You Forever by Robert Munsch
There are several books read at Emma’s first birthday. Riding the Storm Out: Coping With Postpartum Depression and Sex and the Single Mother aren’t real, but Love You Forever sure is. And it’s interesting that Joey reads this book aloud, just a few episodes after kissing Rachel.
Season 10, Episode 13: “The One Where Joey Speaks French”
Like Ross’s Dutch for Beginners, there’s no exact version of Joey’s book. Though Joey learns French for an audition, the book here foreshadows one of the final moments of the series: Rachel’s preparing to move to Paris. It’s safe to assume that Joey still knows all the French pickup lines.